Another Thrill Ride with the Greenwich Village Orchestra
There’s no thrill like being right on top of a symphony orchestra as they stampede through a particularly energetic passage. It’s almost like standing too close to the tracks as a train goes by: you literally feel the music as much as you hear it. And at the Greenwich Village Orchestra’s concerts, you don’t have to have a hedge fund in order to get a front row seat (a $15 donation gets you in; as at Merkin Hall, seats are general admission). Their previous performance back in November looked to be pretty much sold out; their concert this past Sunday wasn’t, probably because the program was more obscure (and maybe because it was what has become unseasonably cold outside). As it turned out, nobody took those front-row seats this time, probably because the sightlines are better a little further back in the auditorium. Standing in for the orchestra’s music director Barbara Yahr, conductor Pierre Vallet led the ensemble through a joyous, often Christmasy program that began and ended on a celebratory note. Conceivably, this particular bill would have been an appropriate choice for the New York Philharmonic Society to play sometime in the winter of 1886.
The first piece was Wagner’s Prelude to Die Meistersinger. Although it’s hardly profound, it’s impossible not to pick up on the subtleties and get lost in the music if you’re only about fifteen feet from the stage. A cynic might say that the orchestra figured, ok, if we have to play this thing, we might as well have fun with it – and they did! It wasn’t quite unbridled lust, but it was close to it – and the piece’s artful little touches, like the tense, shivery strings leading up to a crescendo in the midsection (“Uh oh, is the singer up there going to blow it, or win the contest? This suspense is killing me!”) were undeniable. The opera it comes from is farcical – it’s an ancestor of American Idol – but this orchestra redeemed it, at least this particular excerpt.
German/Jewish Romantic composer Max Bruch is best known for his plaintively powerful Kol Nidre Variations. The Orchestra played his four-part Scottish Fantasy suite, which isn’t quite as gripping, but it’s awfully close, particularly the lushly moody opening movement. Guest violinist Hye-Jin Kim was obviously enjoying herself as she made her way through meticulously bracing variations on the Scottish folk themes on which the piece is based. It’s a showcase for virtuoso fiddle-dance moves, and Kim made the most of them as the work picked up steam, its cinematics shifting from rugged Scottish coastline to country dance and then a triumphant battle theme, Vallet literally dancing on his toes on the podium as the orchestra swung through the changes with congenial majesty.
The concluding piece was Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4, which is vastly underrated as Beethoven goes. The backstory here is that when he wrote this, Beethoven was in the midst of a particularly fertile period, even by his standards. He’d already started the Fifth Symphony, but then received a commission from a German nobleman (in those days, there were no foundations for the arts and no Kickstarter: you went straight to the one-percenters) who was a big fan of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2. Perhaps cynically, it seems the composer figured something like, “What the heck, I’ll knock off this one and then get back to my new magnum opus.” But he didn’t just phone it in – in its warm, comfortably glimmering way, this was a joy to hear. A well-oiled, perfectly balanced machine, the orchestra made their way through the suspenseful atmospherics of the opening movement, to a sudden, blustery gallop and then the buoyantly swaying minuet in the second, awash in the glimmering contentment of the high strings against warmly nocturnal, sustained brass and woodwind tones. After the stately, hypnotic, bass-driven pulse of the third movement, violinist/concertmaster Robert Hayden nimbly led the rest of the strings through the understatedly apprehensive flurries of chromatics that finally lit the fuse for several entertainingly Beethovenesque false endings. In the back, Yahr grinned in appreciation for the way her orchestra had bonded with Vallet, and vice versa. The GVO’s next concert is especially choice: March 25 at 3 PM at Washington Irving HS Auditorium on Irving Place, featuring Khachaturian’s Sabre Dance and Violin Concerto followed by Brahms’ Symphony No. 3 directed by up-and-coming conductor Farkhad Khudyev.
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