Some Insights from Awardwinning Conductor David Bernard of the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony
Most cities are lucky to have a single symphony orchestra. Here in New York, classical music audiences have a far greater number of ensembles to choose from. Not only do we have the flagship New York Philharmonic, we’ve got several other first-rate orchestras, some of them simmering just under the radar. One of the finest of these ensembles is the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony, a full-size symphony orchestra led by charismatic maestro David Bernard. Their 2012-13 season begins this October 27 at 8 PM with a performance of Schubert’s Symphony No. 8, “Unfinished;” Richard Strauss’ Till Eulenspeigel’s Merry Pranks and the Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 5, “Emperor” with Terry Eder on piano, at All Saints Church, 230 E 60th St, between Second and Third Avenues. Maestro Bernard took some time away from his schedule to shed some light on what he and the Chamber Symphony have in store for this season:
Lucid Culture’s Correspondent: First of all, congratulations for winning a First Prize in the Orchestral Conducting Competition of the American Prize. Was there a winning performance, and what was the victorious piece?
David Bernard: Thanks. I am very proud, not only of this, but also for being awarded a First Prize in Orchestral Performance together with the orchestra. Both awards are great recognition. The primary work in the Conducting Competition submission was the performance of Strauss’ Tod und Verklärung – Death and Transfiguration – from October 2011 – which I believe you attended.
LCC: Yes, I was there. That’s a piece that’s very close to my heart, which explains why I’ve seen it performed several times. In fact, I was transfixed by your version: the dynamic range and attention to detail surpassed any performance of that piece that I’ve witnessed. Needless to say, I never expected that a “chamber symphony” would deliver my alltime favorite version of Tod und Verklarung! Which leads me to the next question: as anyone who’s seen the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony in concert will attest, your orchestra is a mighty beast. But one hears the term “chamber symphony” and thinks of maybe a twelve-piece string orchestra. Is that how the group originated? Do you think the name fits at this point?
DB: Yes, our name is a frequent point of discussion, especially when we program larger repertoire. Certainly an orchestra that performs Mahler with a complement of eighty is not a “chamber orchestra.” When we started thirteen years ago, we were an orchestra of twenty-two. When it came time to choose a name, we had a feeling we would grow, so rather than use the name “chamber orchestra” we chose “chamber symphony,” which suggests a larger complement of musicians. We were, in fact, a little small to be a “chamber symphony” at the time, but when we did grow larger, it suited us. Currently, with seventy to eighty members depending on the repertoire, we are not so large yet as to call ourselves a “philharmonic” of say a hundred performers. I see “chamber symphony” as descriptive of that upper middle ground, which is quite versatile, as we can effectively deliver performances of a wide range of repertoire, from Bach to Mahler, in our intimate venue. But I am sure this will be an ongoing discussion, and perhaps sometime down the road we will change our name to reflect our growth.
LCC: You founded the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony thirteen years ago. What are your favorite, most memorable experiences?
DB: There are so many. Our many performances at New York’s major venues – Carnegie Hall, Avery Fisher Hall and Alice Tully Hall. Our performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 with a chorus of more than 200 singers at Riverside Church. Working with Whoopi Goldberg as the narrator in our performance of Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf”. And of course our tour of China this past Winter.
LCC: Tell me about that tour of China. I imagine you have a lot of stories. How did the invitation to play there originate? How do the concert halls and audiences in China compare to what we have over here? Did you have to leave your phone with customs and pick it up on the way out?
DB: The Chinese were very gracious and attentive, and they didn’t have an interest in my cell phone – which is a good thing, for it came in very handy dealing with the many logistical hurdles that typically accompany a nine-city tour like ours! We were invited to perform a series of holiday concerts in China after a representative of China attended one of our performances in New York City. It was an extraordinary experience for the entire orchestra. Our performance itinerary of nine cities in fifteen days – Beijing, Qingdao, Dalian, Jinzhou, Chaoyang, Shenzhen, Guangzhou, Shenyang and Xi’an – was a bit of a whirlwind, but it was very exciting and through the experience, the orchestra bonded on a more personal level. The concerts were held in the major concert halls in each city, some of which were absolutely spectacular. I would certainly put Beijing Concert Hall, Qingdao Grand Theater, Shenzhen Symphony Hall, Xi’an Concert Hall and Xinghai Symphony Hall in Guangzhou in the same class as the best American concert halls in terms of acoustics and overall quality. Since these concerts were billed as holiday concerts, our repertoire was mostly light classical – Strauss’ Die Fledermaus Overture, Rossini’s William Tell Overture, Ponchielli’s Dance of the Hours, etcetera, as well as two Chinese works: Dance of the Yao Tribe, which is a gorgeous work by Liu Tieshan and Mao Yuan, and In Praise of the Red Flag, by Lü Qiming. Audiences were very enthusiastic, especially when we performed the Chinese works. An interesting tidbit is the special affinity the Chinese have for Strauss’ Radetzky March, which must be played as the last of many encores. The custom is that when the Radetzky March is performed, the political leaders exit the hall first while the audience claps its hands to the beat of the march – and we had some very enthusiastic clappers, I must say! We also performed some American music. Copland’s Hoe Down from Rodeo was a big hit – again the audience couldn’t help but clap along – as was an arrangement of Bernstein’s West Side Story, and music from John Williams’ Star Wars. In some concerts, I did a quick change into a Darth Vader costume and conducted the Star Wars music with a light saber. The Chinese loved it – Star Wars is very popular there.
LCC: That’s a great idea, I think more conductors should consider using a light saber – at least the kind that doesn’t go “mmmmmmmm.” Now in my estimation, the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony ranks among New York’s best orchestras – and by that I mean the New York Phil, obviously; the Greenwich Village Orchestra, who never disappoint; the imaginative, theatrically-inclined Chelsea Symphony; the Brooklyn Phil, who do everything from Beethoven to hip-hop; and the Knights, who always seem to be having fun as they jump from century to century. How do you differentiate yourselves? Would you say that there’s a defining characteristic to the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony?
DB: I am really excited about the overall concert experience we offer our audiences. We combine very high quality music making, eclectic and interesting repertoire, first-rate soloists and an intimate venue into a compelling and inexpensive package that our audiences love. Concertgoers are ecstatic about all of this, but especially the intimacy. They say that we make the concert experience come alive through experiencing not only themusic, but the musicians in a much more personal way than a traditional concert—they feel almost as though they are IN the orchestra. This is a big difference to traditional concert venues, which tend to put the audience at a distance. Also, we perform regularly on the Upper East Side. The East Side of Manhattan hasn’t traditionally been the hub for the arts, so through our concert series at All Saints Church – located around the corner from Bloomingdales – we serve as a key cultural resource to this community.
Our mission does not end with our concert season. We work very hard to support music education organizations through fundraising and benefit concerts. Arts institutions are facing difficult times and if you believe in the arts as a cornerstone of society, we need now more than ever, communities that are both arts aware and arts involved. A great way to achieve this goal is to help arts education programs thrive in our schools so we can develop well-rounded people who attend concerts and maybe even donate to their local arts organizations. Through the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony’s fundraising efforts, we have helped establish a new Scholarship Fund for students at the Juilliard School’s Pre-College Division and have raised money for the Lucy Moses Community Music School’s Suzuki Scholarship Program. We have established a particularly longstanding relationship with The Harmony Program—a New York City organization that provides music lessons to economically disadvantaged children and is modeled after Venezuela’s world-famous model of music education, “El Sistema”
LCC: That intimacy between orchestra and audience, I think, really defines the concert experience that the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony has to offer – the atmosphere at All Saints Church really is like being a part of the orchestra. How did you end up there?
DB: Although we have had the privilege of performing in New York’s major concert halls throughout the years, our home has usually been in a New York City church. In 2005, we began an exhaustive search for a new home and found All Saints Church. It has wonderful acoustics, and while being intimate, can also handle performances of large works such as Strauss and Mahler. Over the years we have developed a very strong partnership with All Saints Church. But even early on in our relationship, the church relocated their front set of pews to make room for our string section! We are fortunate to have such a great partner.
LCC: This season’s concluding concerts on May 4 and 5 of 2013 feature the absolutely brilliant pianist Kariné Poghosyan joining the orchestra for the Mozart Concerto for Piano No. 23 in A major, a piece that it seems would be effortless for her. I’m always interested in how musical connections are made. How did this one come about?
DB: We had our eye on Kariné for several years, and finally engaged her to perform Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 at our February 2011 concert series. We had a fantastic collaboration. She was superb and both the audience and the orchestra loved her. This season, as I was looking for a concerto to complement the Kraft work with Tchaikovsky’s rich and passionate Fifth Symphony, this particular Mozart piano concerto – and Ms. Poghosyan – instantly came to mind. It turned out she was eager to play that work, so it was kismet! She is a brilliant and sensitive artist, and we look forward to working with her again.
LCC: Like the New York Phil, the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony has a lot of recordings, which can all be heard or at least sampled on your music page – everything from the Rachmaninoff Symphony No. 2, to Dvorak, Stravinsky, Vaughan Williams, Gershwin, the Four Seasons and the Barber Adagio. Which are all probably the best advertising you could ever get. Do you record every concert you play? Do you have a favorite among them?
DB: The most exciting thing about our catalog of recordings is that it represents a portal to a whole new international audience. We record many of our concerts, which you cansample on our website or download/stream in full using a wide range of sources: iTunes, Amazon.com, Google Play, Spotify and MOG, to name a few. And as you point out, it is great for marketing and brand-building. Looking at our logs, we have regular streamers from around the globe! Picking a favorite is difficult. I love them all, as they are the result of great music making experiences with the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony.
LCC: I’m always curious about how conductors come up with a choice of repertoire for their concert seasons. For example, this season’s opening concert series, on October 27th and 28th is rather eclectic: Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony, Strauss’ Till Eulenspeigel and Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto with soloist Terry Eder. You’ve got plenty of gravitas, but also quirky frivolity. What is your programming game plan?
DB: Programming a season is similar to solving a Rubik’s Cube: there are many dimensions that must be solved for simultaneously. One must balance the variety and selection of works throughout the season with the adjacencies of works within each program, audience preferences, the introduction of new repertoire, inclusion of the familiar and recency of past performances. I have a few longer- term initiatives as well—completing our cycles of Beethoven and Brahms Symphonies as well as cycle of Strauss’ Tone Poems. So each season our audiences are treated to at least one Beethoven Symphony – this season we have programmed two, the First and the Seventh. We will complete the Beethoven cycle next Fall with the Second Symphony and the Strauss Cycle next Fall with Don Juan. The Brahms Cycle will be completed in 2014.
I also love to premiere new works and expand the repertoire. The Park Avenue Chamber Symphony has a rich history of programming premieres, including works by Bruce Adolphe, Chris Caswell and John Mackey. Last season we premiered a jazz piano concerto written and performed by Ted Rosenthal, which was especially satisfying as Ted is an extraordinary musician, composer and performer: we subsequently released a recording of this work which is available on iTunes and Amazon.com. And in May we will be giving the New York Premiere of Leo Kraft’s Variations for Orchestra. We have a deep and ongoing commitment to the music of our time.
Within a single program, I often enjoy programming works of similar lineage that also represent great variety. Our October program of Schubert, Strauss and Beethoven is an example, representing the finest Germanic symphonic music, yet each work offers a distinctly unique experience. Despite its popularity, Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony refuses to become stale with sublime, timeless and unforgettable phrases. You can feel Schubert’s soul in every note as he guides you through a wild ride that ends with a spiritual ascent. In Till Eulenspeigel, Strauss offers a highly programmatic and exciting account of the antics of a 14th-century prankster that is masterfully crafted and scored. It offers great contrast to the Schubert and I think it’s a marvelous way to close the first half of the program. Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto is in many ways a synthesis of both the Schubert and the Strauss across the stream of movements, we get heroism, deeply felt melancholy and a frolicking romp to a triumphant conclusion that ties the evening together. I hope that by the end of the program our audience will be energized, enlightened and entertained in a way that only classical music can offer.
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