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Music Review

A musical consultation with Dr. Borodin

By Jeremy Eichler
Globe Staff / December 7, 2010

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Greater Boston has dozens upon dozens of community-based orchestras and choruses, many of whose members maintain professional lives outside of music and therefore have the privilege of performing solely for the joy of it. One such highly committed amateur ensemble is the Longwood Symphony Orchestra, which is unusual in that its players are mostly doctors, scientists, mental health professionals, nurses, and students in health-related fields.

The latest news from Longwood is that its longtime music director, Jonathan McPhee, will be stepping down at the end of this season. “After six years, it’s time to pass the baton,’’ McPhee said in a recent phone interview, adding that it was a hard choice but that the group needs a director who can devote more time to it. In addition to the Longwood Symphony, McPhee also directs the Boston Ballet Orchestra, the Lexington Symphony, and the Nashua Symphony and Chorus in New Hampshire. Dr. Lisa M. Wong, Longwood’s president, said a search committee has already been formed to find McPhee’s successor.

During his time with Longwood, McPhee has wisely helped the group carve out its own niche in part through its unusual choices of repertoire, with each season offering at least one Boston premiere and many programs presenting works from beyond the small body of orchestral greatest hits.

For Saturday’s program in Jordan Hall the main orchestral work was Borodin’s Symphony No. 2, not exactly a rarity but not a piece heard every day. (Elsewhere this season is music by Delius, Vaughan Williams, and Schreker.) Soprano Joanna Porackova was the concert’s soloist, performing a selection from Wagner’s “Götterdämmerung.’’

The lineup allowed for some handy musical-medical connections too. Prior to launching a professional singing career, Porackova worked as a nurse in the intensive care unit at Children’s Hospital Boston and elsewhere in the city. And Borodin himself was a noted chemist. Musicologist Steven Ledbetter clearly knew his audience when, in the program note, he mentioned Borodin’s research on the “polymerization and condensation of aldehydes’’ before discussing either of his two symphonies. Speaking from the stage, Wong likewise referred to the composer as “Dr. Borodin,’’ as if describing an esteemed colleague who happened to practice in 19th-century St. Petersburg.

In the Second Symphony, McPhee drew broad muscular playing and a large, solid, and dark-hued tone from the strings. Later movements were buoyed by shapely solo contributions from the winds and brass. Some of the more demanding moments in Borodin’s brisk Scherzo and later in the opening pages of the Wagner excerpt — “Dawn and Siegfried’s Rhine Journey’’ — seemed to press the group’s technical capacity but never exceeded it.

More saliently, you could sense and hear the pleasure these players derive from performing as a group as well as, in this case, collaborating with Porackova, who sang Wagner’s famous Immolation scene with a powerful dusky soprano and a heartfelt, involving sense of the music’s inner drama. McPhee and the surging orchestra supported her in kind.

Each Longwood Symphony concert is also a benefit for a local nonprofit. On Saturday it was the Art Connection, which accepts donated art from artists and collectors and uses it to beautify the environment of local service organizations, medical and otherwise.

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at jeichler@globe.com.

LONGWOOD SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA Jonathan McPhee, conductor

At: Jordan Hall, Saturday night