The Boston Herald
Pro Arte pleasures: celestial, yet down-to-earth
Maestro Gisèle Ben-Dor did not start this concert with a bang. With an undulation of her batonless hand that was reminiscent of an Indonesian dancer, she asked her orchestra to join with a high sweet tone that had been sounding since the world began. So commences Aaron Jay Kernis' "Musica Celestis for Strings," which he has described as "inspired by medieval angels singing God's praises eternally." The achingly pure sustained opening, with high tones grazing one another and floating away again, sounded like the music of the spheres.
Eternity is a long time, however. Despite a radiant string sound and tender violin solos by Kristina Nilsson and Pattison Story, the piece lapsed back to earth. The middle section's whooshing sounds (the passing of fast-lane angels?), an accelerando and the unfulfilled threat of a fugue did not cause the piece to take wing and catch the light again.
Pianist Soomi Lee, who has been active in this area as a chamber player and teacher, made her debut with Pro Arte in Chopin's F-minor Concerto. Her opening gambit came off as rather stiff, as if the piano were fighting her. Rubato hesitated rather than lingered, and fast notes blurred together. During tuttis she seemed overmatched by an orchestration notorious for its too-subordinate role.
However, in the perfumed love-dream of the adagio Lee showed that she is a poet. This soaring bel canto aria was inspired by the adolescent Chopin's crush on a young singer, and the extravagant decorations of the big tune gave Lee a chance to shatter the tender stream of melody into shimmering sprays of coloratura. In the recitative, over trembling strings her impassioned cries and confessions were lovingly shaped, wanting only more dynamic diversity at the loud end.
The mazurka movement presented some togetherness problems for the orchestra, but elicited flashes of temperament from Lee. She caught fire and played well, but the swagger and self-display of the Polish dance eluded her until the final moments.
The orchestra took us on a dazzling, sparks-flying ride through Haydn's Symphony 104. Ben-Dor has wonderful physical eloquence (her elbows speak volumes) and the group mirrored her gestural vocabulary in sound. Everything they did had wit, color and sculptural shape - even the silences. The coy stretchings of time and surprising depths of feeling in the great trio of the minuet called up the goose bumps. The final movement's earth-sprung peasant tune and countertheme of courtly melancholy were turned inside out and upside down in a development of such health and humanity that you felt utterly satisfied - until you heard the recap and coda and realized that you had seriously underestimated your capacity for joy.