The phoenix comparisons are impossible to ignore.
A new orchestra takes the stage in the Great Hall at Fanueil Hall for the first time on March 6. Dubbed the Bach, Beethoven & Brahms Society, it looks and sounds a lot like the Boston Classical Orchestra, which has graced that same stage for more than three decades. That’s no coincidence.
Citing limited infrastructure, six-figure deficits and declining subscriptions, the board of the Boston Classical Orchestra filed for bankruptcy at the end of January. But music director Steven Lipsitt, who had conducted that ensemble since 1999, refused to toss away his baton.
“Our players are a small part of the musical landscape,” he says, “but an important part. If we didn’t perform, some 5,000 concertgoers would be disappointed, and 30 to 40 players would have less satisfying gigs.”
And so the BB&BS rises from the ashes of the BCO. Without missing a beat.
The March 6 concert will even be a program that was planned for the BCO season — as will the season finale on April 17. (Tickets for the Boston Classical Orchestra concerts on the same dates will be honored.)
Boston Symphony Orchestra principals Thomas Rolfs (trumpet) and Toby Oft (trombone) will join the new orchestra on March 6. The BSO itself, according to Lipsitt, is “almost entirely on board” with the new venture.
“I tried to emphasize that the musical ecosystem is interdependent,” he says. “There’s a reason that kids in Boston have good music teachers. There’s a reason that when the BSO needs a last-minute fill-in, they have great musicians to draw on. We’re part of that reason. Our people also play in the [Boston Pops] Esplanade Orchestra, and that’s a fantastic group. They’re in Handel and Haydn [Society]. They’re in Boston Modern Orchestra Project. I felt a strong commitment to the musicians, to the soloists and to the public.”
And so the music goes on. It is indeed a crowded landscape in Boston, something that can be both a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing that freelance musicians have multiple orchestras to perform with, but the competition to attract paying audiences gets fierce. It takes skill and luck, both onstage and behind the scenes, to stand out among numerous talented ensembles.
That luck ran out for the Boston Classical Orchestra, but the fact hasn’t deterred Lipsitt, who says he’s already secured nonprofit 501(c)(3) tax status for the new organization.
“We’re starting small, with a six-person board. The structure of the ensemble’s schedule is flexible,” he adds, noting that BB&BS will announce a season for next year that includes, at the least, five Sunday afternoon concerts at its home venue at Fanueil Hall. “Maybe we’ll play additional concerts in other venues, or house parties — other ways to market and generate publicity,” he says.
The March 6 program remains the same as the one announced for the Boston Classical Orchestra that day, showcasing the ample talents of Rolfs and Oft, linchpins of the outstanding BSO horn section. The concert includes two works that reference Venice — Salieri’s “Sinfonia Veneziana” and Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari’s “Suite Veneziana,” along with Haydn’s Symphony No. 59, and Leopold Mozart’s “Serenata for Trumpet, Trombone and Orchestra,” a nine-movement suite with some sections reconstructed by Lipsitt to show off his celebrated soloists.
“I’m pretty sure this is the first complete Boston performance of this work,” he says. “It has a two-movement trumpet concerto, and a three-movement trombone concerto, that make up five of the nine movements in this serenade. I like to think that if Leopold had both these soloists for the whole night, he would have done what I did. With Tom and Toby here, doing anything else would be a waste.”
Bigger programs might be part of the BB&B Society’s future. “Right now, with this hall and with an orchestra this size, we can’t play the big Brahms symphonies, or Tchaikovsky or Dvorak. We’ve tried to hit the sweet spot in the past, with smaller works that fit on the Fanueil Hall stage. But we’d love to do an oratorio or one of the larger symphonies. We’ve done some new works in the past — we’ll never be a new music orchestra, I know — but when audiences have heard us do a piece by Oboe Lee or Howard Frazin or Larry Wolf, they would often enjoy them.
“We’ve always been willing to explore things,” he added. “We’ve never been pedantic about music, or purists. I think one of the nicest things about us is that we take the music seriously, but we don’t take ourselves seriously.”
Keith Powers, former music critic at the Boston Herald, now freelances for a number of newspapers and magazines. Follow him on Twitter at @PowersKeith.