CAMBRIDGE — How does a local chamber group compete with internationally renowned orchestras in mainstream works such as Beethoven’s Violin Concerto and his Symphony No. 4? By staying fleet, fluid, and fervent and eschewing the ubiquitous style of hammering each note into the floor that turns Beethoven from revolutionary into reactionary. That, of course, is easier said than done. But at Sanders Theatre Sunday afternoon, the Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra under music director Kevin Rhodes delivered the goods.
The concert began with the violin concerto, whose lyric first-movement theme would be unforgettable even without the rhyme — “Don't play chess with your daughter, she knows more than you taught her” — that got attached to it decades ago. I was not initially taken with the soloist, Arturo Delmoni: His tone was astringent, even puckering, and there were lapses in intonation. He also had to work with a conductor who was forthright to a fault; there was not enough mystery in the opening four-note motif, and Rhodes’s traversal of the lyric theme was unyielding.
But Delmoni’s introverted, low-key intensity grew on me. The ambience he created was Viennese rather than German, by turns meditative, unsettling, playful. When in his first-movement cadenza he played the lyric theme solo, it took on an ineffable melancholy. In the Larghetto he got pungent support from first the bassoons and then the horns (winds and brass were in great form all afternoon); in the Allegro finale he conjured a tender Gypsy sorrow. His performance was not earthshaking; it was not going to bail out Greece. But in the end it seemed as indispensably idiosyncratic as his long gray ponytail. I would not want to play chess with him.
Whatever I imagined Rhodes’s interpretative shortcomings to be in the concerto, they were nowhere evident in the symphony. This Fourth was exuberant; it had pace and point without ever being ponderous. How often do you hear a Beethoven symphony performed with just 21 string players? Yet there was no want of string power, or richness. I do wish Rhodes had seated his first and second violins antiphonally, as was the practice in Beethoven’s day — the seconds’ rhythmic figurations in the Adagio might then have emerged more clearly.
PRO ARTE CHAMBER ORCHESTRA
But the prowling of the opening Allegro vivace looked ahead to Bruckner’s way of keeping you uncertain as to what key you’re in. The Adagio, an uneasy pastorale dotted with martial misgivings, looked ahead to the lover’s betrayal in the “Scène aux champs” of Berlioz’s “Symphonie fantastique.” The perpetual motion of the final Allegro ma non troppo went like the proverbial bat out of hell. And the balance of strings, winds, brass, and timpani was exemplary throughout. Schumann called the Fourth “a slender Greek maiden”; here it was bold and beautiful as well.