From Schuller and Pro Arte, a collegial tribute to Haydn

Gunther Schuller (pictured in 2007) opened and closed with symphonies by Joseph Haydn. Gunther Schuller (pictured in 2007) opened and closed with symphonies by Joseph Haydn. (Hiroyuki Ito for The New York Times/file 2007)
By Matthew Guerrieri
Globe Correspondent / April 8, 2009
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CAMBRIDGE - "How can someone invent something," Gunther Schuller mused, "and, the first time, make it perfect?"

Schuller was referring to Joseph Haydn's Symphony No. 1, which opened Sunday's concert by the Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra. In his role as Pro Arte's principal guest conductor, he introduced the piece as not just Haydn's first symphony, but the first symphony ever. That's poetic license (Johann Stamitz and his 58 symphonies might object), but one could hear why Haydn's prospectus, with its bright confidence and formal digestibility, attracted long-term investment.

Schuller conducted with a light touch, often not even beating time, letting the ensemble ride the wave of its momentum. If a few places needed more superintendence - some slippery violin entrances in the slow movement, for example - the laid-back colloquy amplified the music's charm.

Irina Muresanu, spinning a focused, urbane thread of sound, was the soloist for Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 3 (K. 216). Violinist and orchestra started off at odds, but halfway into the central Adagio, the performance clicked. The finale's downshift to Hungarian color maintained a courtly tone; the ending, the music disappearing into the winds' pocket, had impish, offhand grace.

A surprise encore finished the first half: a "Chanson" by the Catalonian violinist-composer Juan Manén, orchestrated, with filial nostalgia, by Schuller (it was a favorite of his violinist father). Schuller's arrangement, characteristically, found edgy facets in the prevailing lushness, especially toward the end, with Muresanu's refinement glimpsed through an icy haze of string harmonics.

Frank Bridge's "There Is a Willow Grows Aslant a Brook," a 1927 illustration of Ophelia's fate in "Hamlet," was a similarly distant reflection of Schuller's own compositions; its dark, dense harmonic cast colors English pastoral with dark clouds and tangled branches. Schuller used a noticeably firmer baton to draw an efficient, powerful dramatic arc.

Haydn finished the afternoon: His Symphony No. 97, composed three decades after the first. It's a piece of cheerful extremes, of activity and mood. Schuller's hands-off conducting returned, but weight and ponderousness increased as each movement went, while soft passages lost urgency and tension. Still, Haydn's ingenious craft rewards even a leisurely exploration; Schuller's collegial tribute maintained a genial conviction. Basking in the applause after the first Symphony, Schuller acknowledged the composer by pointing to the heavens.

PRO ARTE CHAMBER ORCHESTRA Gunther Schuller, conductor

With Irina Muresanu, violin

At: Sanders Theatre, Harvard University, Sunday