Concert Review: Eroica plays the familiar pleasantries

Ensemble content to serve ear candy

There are times when a classical program made up of recognizable tunes is simply an excuse to bask in beautiful sound. The experience is neither rapturous nor soporific. Just OK; a pleasant way to spend an evening.

Such was the case with the Eroica Ensemble on Saturday night at First Congregational Church when the orchestra offered works by Mozart, Tchaikovsky and Mendelssohn.

Conductor Michael Gilbert certainly cares about the traditional repertoire. As a retired violinist for the New York Philharmonic, he is intimately familiar with these works, which require some tight playing for the first violins.

But occasionally, a program of all A-sides can lean toward complacency. His orchestra full of young musicians and music teachers would likely do an excellent job with contemporary pieces, but they are few and far between in his season.

Because Eroica's concerts are free to attend (one is encouraged to leave a donation), there's little risk that a lesser-known composer or work at the beginning or in the middle of the bill will turn listeners away in droves. A rose without thorns is not a true rose in the metaphorical sense. Gilbert is sometimes overly content with petals and perfume.

Mozart's Overture to "Don Giovanni" started off the evening, and while the tempo felt a touch onerous, the cellos and basses nevertheless had darkly compelling resonance.

The young soloist Will Haapaniemi, one of the rotating concertmasters with the New World Symphony in Miami, had a fine, romantic sound in Tchaikovsky's "D Major Violin Concerto." His instrument's mellow tone and the smooth legato of his runs sounded wonderful against the orchestra's lush backdrop. First Congo is a very live space, and Gilbert provided nicely balanced accompaniment.

The opening Allegro Vivace of Mendelssohn's "Italian" Symphony No. 4 has been so often used in advertising that one can't help thinking of salad dressings and Italian restaurants when it is played. While the first movement was no doubt zesty and upbeat, the most memorable playing came from the French horns in the third movement.

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