The Boston Globe
It isn't easy to assess the achievement and legacy of Gisèle Ben-Dor's tenure with the Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra because the relationship between orchestra and conductor is so atypical.
Since Pro Arte is a cooperative, the artistic authority of the principal conductor (the title "music director" was eliminated several years ago) is extremely circumscribed. Unlike a traditional music director, Ben-Dor shared responsibility for repertory, soloists, and personnel, and in fact served at the pleasure of the self-governing orchestra. Therefore, one cannot attribute to her the overall level of playing, the quality or interest of the music performed, or the distinction of soloists and guest conductors. From an outsider's perspective, one could only comment on individual programs Ben-Dor conducted. However, on the occasion of Ben-Dor's final concert as principal conductor with Pro Arte, concertmaster Kristina Nilsson praised Ben-Dor's nine-year regime. "She was a shining star in our midst," she said. "We were the beneficiaries of her terrific energy and her unique insights into music she loves."
Nilsson acknowledged that Ben-Dor was often frustrated by the cooperative orchestra's democratic form of government and attributed Ben-Dor's lack of involvement in Boston musical life to that frustration. Still, "she brought deep knowledge and a profound love of music and sheer joy to rehearsals and performances." Underscoring this assessment, the orchestra named Ben-Dor "Conductor Emerita."
At yesterday's concert, Ben-Dor performed an odd, quirky program that exemplified those qualities of exoticism, joy, and energy praised by her musician colleagues. Framed by witty, live-wire performances of Rossini's Overture to "il Signor Bruschino" and the Beethoven First Symphony, the program featured works influenced by folk traditions.
Silvestre Revueltas, a Mexican composer Ben-Dor has championed in recent years, is known (if at all) for his Ivesian iconoclasm, his political and musical Marxism. But to judge by "Colorines," the composer's deliberate primitivism emerged from the same primeval forest as Stravinsky's "Ride of Spring," with a brief detour to the urban jungle of Gershwin's "American in Paris."
Almas Serkebayev, a native of the Kazakh region of the former USSR, is a recent emigre to Randolph. His "Shertpe Kuy," heard in its US premiere, evokes the ancient nomadic ideal of perpetual travel and the sound of the dombra, a traditional string instrument. With its pulsating ostinati, it also evokes Khachaturian's "Sabre Dance."
Heitor Villa-Lobos's Harmonica Concerto proved the real curiosity on the program. The soloist, Robert Bonfiglio, displayed lots of hair, chiseled features, deep knee bends, and an astonishing, if improbable, virtuosity. The cinematic music supplied him with lots of opportunities for agility and color, and he made the harmonica sound alternately like an antique reed instrument and an accordion. Responding to the ovation that followed, Bonfiglio - good son that he is - introduced his mother from the stage. Then, supremely confident that we wanted more, he played three bluesy encores.