Continuing its conductor search, the Brookline Symphony on Saturday presented a solid performance of orchestral favorites under the baton of candidate Tiffany Chang. Chang packs a lot of punch in her diminutive stature and leads the orchestra with a calm, confident demeanor, shaping phrases elegantly while maintaining a clear beat. Her credentials are impressive, including assistant professor of conducting at Berklee, acting director of orchestral activities and a lecturer in orchestral conducting at Boston University, and numerous prizes and honors. Her future looks bright. She appears at home on the podium, but does not exaggerate her gestures. Everything seemed appropriate and effective.
The program consisted of German Romantics: Otto Nicolai’s Overture to the Merry Wives of Windsor, Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor with Abigail Karr, and Schuman’s Symphony No. 1, Spring.
Nicolai lived from 1810 to 1849 and wrote in an Italianate style. This Overture has strong hints of Rossini in its broad gestures and cheery sound. The Merry Wives of Windsor, from the last years of his life, is a singspiel based on Shakespeare about the lovelife of Falstaff, the great character in the Henry IV plays. Many composers have been inspired by him, with the most notable work being Verdi’s opera. In spite of its greater popularity, Nicolai’s piece lives on, with frequent performances in German-speaking countries. The Overture is a delightful work, a great opener. Chang allowed the violins to sneak in so subtly that it was almost a surprise to hear their music. Her gestures were similarly minimalist. The brief work passes through several moods, ending in a rollicking finale. The violins sparkled, and the whole orchestra did a fine job.
The Mendelssohn (1844) is so familiar that it is interesting to hear an interpretation that engenders new appreciation. The soloist was Abigail Karr, of New York, who studied with Sergiu Luca and is the founder and director of Gretchen’s Muse, a chamber ensemble dedicated to bringing music of the 18th century to life through exciting historically informed performances. Karr’s immersion in Mendelssohn is thorough, as she has just recorded the complete works for violin and piano on period instruments. While she performs on modern and Baroque instruments alike, her style speaks strongly to a HIP affinity. Her playing of this concerto was far from the often heavyhanded, thoroughly Romantic versions that prevail. The tone was almost silvery, with far less vibrato and a lightness of bow that revealed a different kind of understanding of the work. In all other aspects her performance was equally fine, technique solid, intonation sure, and phrasing elegant.
It was definitely not spring outside, but the Schumann (1841) had a great deal of spring in it. Brisk tempos revealed Mendelssohnian lightness in the Andante un poco maestoso – Allegro molto vivace. In the second movement Larghetto, the cellos sounded particularly rich in their solo passage. Also notable was the horn and flute transition back to the main theme in the Allegro animato e grazioso.
Overall orchestral intonation was not as solid as I have heard it, but balance and phrasing were excellent. The brass especially stood out. In a normal season, this would be a homerun of a concert. It’s debatable whether the program demonstrated the range of styles needed in a music director; while pleasant, each piece informing the others, it could not demonstrate a conductor’s handling of other periods. Ultimately, how a conductor interacts with the musicians and the board goes the longest way in determining who best fits the ensemble.
The Brookline Symphony continues to provide solid and impressive music-making in a town replete with musical riches. It will doubtless only improve after the new music director, whoever that is, takes hold and shapes the ensemble further.