CAMBRIDGE — “Patrons and Their Commissions I” was the title of the opening-night concert of Longy School of Music’s Septemberfest 2013, and though the pieces on the program — two by Igor Stravinsky, one by Aaron Copland — were indeed commissioned, all three also started out as, or became, dances. Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” was commissioned as ballet music for Martha Graham; Stravinsky’s Concerto in D for Strings and “Dumbarton Oaks” Concerto became Jerome Robbins’s “The Cage” and “Dumbarton Oaks.” With the right performers, all three works can dance, but Friday evening, Geoffrey McDonald and the Longy Chamber Orchestra didn’t quite get into the swing.
The “Dumbarton Oaks” Concerto — a 1938 wedding-anniversary commission named for the couple’s home in Georgetown, D.C. — riffs on the opening three notes of Bach’s “Brandenburg Concerto” No. 3, and the concertino instruments keep chasing after one another in a circle before running out of energy. The Concerto in D, written in 1946 to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Basel Chamber Orchestra, does the usual Stravinsky 1940s stuff: racing, becoming ironically lyrical, racing again, pausing to consider, growing bluesy, more racing. Stravinsky keeps teasing us, asking, “Do you want to hear that again, or should I go on,” and you can practically see dancers — particularly Balanchine dancers — trying out this phrase and that.
The Longy performances of these concertos needed crisper rhythms, greater dynamic and tempo contrast, and more cogent phrasing. “Dumbarton Oaks” did benefit from some excellent wind playing, particularly Luz Elena Sarmiento Lozada’s clarinet, and the long-breathed violin melody in the Arioso of the Concerto in D was affecting.
“Appalachian Spring” was performed in Copland’s original chamber version for double string quartet, bass, flute, clarinet, bassoon, and piano. It’s too bad we couldn’t have heard the complete ballet rather than just the suite; most of what Copland left out of the suite were variations on the Shaker tune “Simple Gifts” that offer a tougher perspective on the pioneer couple’s daily tasks. There was again good clarinet work, this time from Ivan Valbuena Paez, and the 13 Longy players conveyed Copland’s buoyant energy and tender, muted optimism. The performance still gave the impression of treading water: What needed to snap didn’t, and what needed to relax didn’t either. But the fresh, pioneer spirit of the original version came through.