When it comes to the composition of the modern orchestra, it may seem like a heartless Darwinian logic is at work. Only the fittest instruments survive through the centuries, while the evolutionary losers drop out and vanish from sight.
But they are not forgotten, at least not in Boston. There seems to be something romantic about cheering for history's underdogs, those humble, soft-voiced instruments that were thrust aside in the headlong sprint toward modern orchestral brilliance and efficiency. The bass trombonist Douglas Yeo seems particularly susceptible to this romantic tug, and he has become one of the country's leading champions of the serpent, a bass-range instrument made of leather and wood, curvaceous like its namesake.
It was invented in the 16th century to accompany Gregorian chant, and it's often described as an ancestor of the modern tuba and euphonium. Berlioz composed for it; Thomas Hardy lamented its disappearance ("a good old note"); and Yeo has made it his mission to lift this instrument from the mists of obscurity.
On Sunday afternoon in Faneuil Hall, the Boston Classical Orchestra presented Yeo in the premiere of a work by Gordon Bowie entitled "Old Dances in New Shoes." The piece is an unapologetic homage to traditional Baroque-style dances, at times updated with a jazzy tinge. But it accomplished its clear goal: to showcase this orchestral Cinderella in all of its unknown glory, through virtuoso passagework and fluent melodic writing.
The serpent's unwieldy construction and its temperamental finger holes require a highly skilled and completely fearless brass player. Yeo made it look as natural as I suspect anybody could. The instrument's sound is far woodier than that of modern brass instruments, and without their brilliant sheen. But Yeo's tone was warm and firm, and full of unusually rich colors. Music director Steven Lipsitt proved a sensitive partner.
As an encore, Yeo offered a lively transcription of an aria from Handel's "Acis and Galatea" performed on another forgotten brass instrument: the ophicleide, which allegedly inspired Adolphe Sax to invent the instrument that bears his name.
On either end of this journey up the brass family tree, Lipsitt and the orchestra gave shapely renditions of early symphonies by Haydn (No. 10) and Mozart (No. 29). The audience also seemed to appreciate the conductor's variation on a common fund-raising theme. Rather than making the standard plea to support arts organizations in a tough economic climate, conductor Lipsitt pulled out his clarinet and floated a Depression-era favorite: "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?"