Tension and Transcendence from the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony
The Park Avenue Chamber Symphony are not unknown – they’re touring China late this year – and their Manhattan concert yesterday appeared to be sold out. If you’re a fan of classical music and they’re not on your radar, they should be: they are a world-class orchestra, and not as small as “chamber symphony” necessarily implies. Sunday evening they offered fresh, inspired takes on a couple of old favorites – Richard Strauss’ Death and Transfiguration and Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, Op. 61 – as well as Benjamin Britten’s song cycle Les Illuminations.
They opened with the Britten, an orchestral setting of Rimbaud poems on diverse themes, sung here by soprano Tamra Paselk. The program notes suggested that there may be a gay subtext to Britten’s interpretation, which may or may not be true – when he wrote them, the composer might simply have been glad to be hanging out in America, far from the stodginess of British high society. Throughout the nine-part suite for strings and voice, there was a recurrent sense of unease in the orchestra, counterbalanced, sometimes to triumphantly joyous extreme, by Paselk’s interpretation. With the occasional, unexpected sudden leap and chromatics that play against the orchestra, these were not easy songs to sing, but she owned them, moving from clenched-teeth intensity to redemptive joy to end on an unexpectedly rapt note.
This orchestra’s version of Death and Transfiguration wasn’t much about death, but it was all about transfiguration – still, intense apprehension giving way to hope. Conductor David Bernard didn’t leave an inch of headroom, taking it to the rafters with a bang at the first opportunity, which worked magically because the dynamics to come later would bring it all the way back down, a monumental contrast. It’s amazing how modern this piece is. A lot of orchestras have done it fairly safely as a tone poem of sorts; this version, for all its blazing crescendos, was an impressive reminder of how little the melody actually moves around, how much of it foreshadows “horizontal music,” and how dynamics can transform it from decently suspenseful to absolutely electric. Nietzsche, who wasn’t far behind (Strauss would write Zarathustra only a couple years later), would have approved.
Metropolitan Opera orchestra concertmaster David Chan played the violin concerto from memory with an intuitive sense of touch, varying from crystalline to split-second doublestops and more than one subtly modulated vibrato approach. There’s a series of three big insistent chords that leap unexpectedly out of one of the early solo cadenzas, and Bernard brought the orchestra in to land with an understatedly nimble assurance. Although the work dates from 1806, Beethoven is already hinting amidst the comfortably nocturnal Haydn-influenced highclass alehouse consonance – this was from a time before cocktails were invented – at the kind of melodic and architectural paradigm shifts of his last sonatas and string quartets. Through subtle and then more dramatic melodic variations, with and without the ensemble, Chan methodically assembled a launching pad for the final victory round. After their Chinese tour, the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony wrap up their season with Beethoven’s Symphony #4 and Mahler’s Symphony #1 on May 5 and 6.
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