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BRÜNNHILDE OFF BOOK Joanna Porackova didn’t just sing the part, she portrayed the character.
Jonathan McPhee is a hard man to keep up with. Last month, he was leading Gustav Mahler’s titanic Eighth Symphony — the “Symphony of a Thousand” — with the combined Lexington and Nashua Symphony Orchestras, an outrageously ambitious project that was brought off with great credit. This month, as the music director at Boston Ballet, he’s conducting most of that company’s 40 performances of The Nutcracker. But McPhee also leads the Longwood Symphony Orchestra, an ensemble made up mostly of area music professionals, and last Saturday, the LSO offered an ambitious program of its own: Alexander Borodin’s Hollywood-ready Second Symphony, and then, after intermission, two selections from Richard Wagner’s Götterdämmerung: Dawn and Siegfried’s Rhine Journey and, with soprano Joanna Porackova, Brünnhilde’s Immolation.

You might have imagined that Jordan Hall would be full, if not packed: Borodin’s symphonies are hardly ever performed in Boston, and music from Götterdämmerung is also a rarity (though Benjamin Zander and the Boston Philharmonic gave us Siegfried’s Funeral March and the Immolation, with Linda Watson, in November 2009). It was not. Was everyone across the way at Symphony Hall for the final Boston Symphony Orchestra concert of 2010? Or all shopped out after the first Saturday of the holiday season? Or does the impression persist that because the Longwood players are medical professionals, they can’t be expected to play like professional musicians?

Well, consider Dr. Borodin. Yes, Alexander Borodin (1833–1887) was a chemist and a physician first and a composer second, and though he was only 53 when he died of a heart attack, he left us a major opera, Prince Igor, as well as music good enough, when cobbled together into the 1953 Broadway musical Kismet, to make him the proud, if posthumous, possessor of a Tony. His Second Symphony (1877) is an odd duck, starting off with a big stentorian theme (borrowed by Kismet for “Fate”) that’s cousin to the “Fate” motif that starts off Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony (from the same year) but gets less than half as much room to develop — eight minutes — as Tchaikovsky’s does. The second theme, too, keeps threatening to sing out and never quite does. It all vaguely suggests some gathering in mediæval Russia — hardly surprising, since Borodin was working on the 12th-century-set Prince Igor at the same time. The second movement chatters and chirps like a fair on the steppes; the third is introduced by a nostalgic horn solo recalling the days of ancient Rus; the finale might have you imagining those ancient heroes riding home to their princesses — there are passages that seem destined for the soundtrack of a 1940s Hollywood version of Prince Igor starring Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland.

All this McPhee and the LSO conveyed idiomatically and with rough-hewn intelligence, from the meaty statement of the “Fate” theme in the cellos and basses to the dreamy horn solo from principal Vanessa Gardner. Against balances that weren’t always ideally calibrated, there was the way McPhee (like Claudio Abbado in his recording of Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky score) conjured Orthodox chant with his even stressing of beats.

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  Topics: Classical , Music, Benjamin Zander, Opera,  More more >
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