Faneuil Hall might not be the first hall to come to mind for classical music in Boston, but it certainly is a visually striking and acoustically pleasing hall, especially if you don’t mind being watched over by stern-faced portraits and busts of various Founding Fathers. In case anyone’s concerned about noise from the street performers and musicians that busk around the hall and Quincy Market: As soon as I entered and went up the stairs, I could barely hear anything from outside, not even the drum fill from Phil Collins’s “In the Air Tonight,” which a performing group was blasting from their sound system as I approached.
Nothing distracted from the main event in the hall itself on Sunday afternoon. Boston’s Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms Society and music director/conductor Steven Lipsitt offered a program that featured none of their namesake composers, focusing instead on 19th- and 20th-century British music for string orchestra and soloists. The afternoon balanced crowd-pleasing shorter pieces by Vaughan Williams, Elgar, and Holst with two accessibly avant-garde longer works by midcentury master Benjamin Britten.
The concert began with Ralph Vaughan Williams’s “Fantasia on ‘Greensleeves,’” performed without a conductor and led from the concertmaster’s desk by Roksana Sudol, who also contributed a handful of tender and sweet solos on the familiar folk melody. Lipsitt joined the ensemble and offered some engaging commentary before leading the ensemble in Elgar’s Serenade for String Orchestra, which was sentimental without swooning.
Then it was into the night — never mind that the sun was still well above the horizon — for the Britten. In keeping with a long Lipsitt tradition, the soloists were all well-known local names.
“The French name for oboe is ‘high wood,’ haut-bois,” Lipsitt said as Boston Symphony Orchestra principal oboist John Ferrillo prepared his reed and assembled his instrument, notoriously one of the orchestra’s most finicky.
“Which is funny because we’re always playing flat!” Ferrillo said, and proceeded to deftly run the gauntlet of Britten’s “Temporal Variations,” a devilishly technical piece in nine movements originally for oboe and piano. To treat those simply as etudes and exercises would be a disservice, and Ferrillo deployed the expressive acumen that BSO listeners know well, gracefully responding to the orchestra.
After intermission, BSO second horn player Rachel Childers and tenor Matthew DiBattista shared the spotlight in “Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings.” DiBattista, an accomplished Britten tenor with a delicate and ethereal yet strongly grounded voice, escorted the audience through a profound dark night of the soul as Childers’s horn and the string orchestra offered commentary on the piece’s selection of English poems. In “Dirge,” the longest movement, horn and strings seemed to illustrate a danse-macabre as DiBattista’s repeated refrain tolled like a churchyard bell.
The metaphorical morning arrived with Holst’s “St. Paul Suite,” which was nothing short of a romp. The final movement, which Holst recycled from a piece he’d written for brass band, mashed up “Greensleeves” with “Dargason,” a bouncy tune that sounds almost identical to “The Irish Washerwoman,” putting the listeners right back where they started before sending them out into the noise of a spring Sunday afternoon at Quincy Market.
BACH, BEETHOVEN, AND BRAHMS SOCIETY
At Faneuil Hall. March 26. www.bbbsociety.org
A.Z. Madonna can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten.