The Park Avenue Chamber Symphony Channels Beethoven
Nights like last night are murder on fingers and instruments. In the dressing room before their concert, members of the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony were running their hands under a hot faucet, trying to loosen their digits from the chill outside. Throughout the show, instruments were retuned on the fly. And the ensemble rose to the occasion with an all-Beethoven program in celebration of the composer’s birthday that he probably would have approved of.
They warmed up with the Symphony No. 1. On the surface, it’s almost a homage to Haydn – and yet, it was pretty cutting-edge for 1800, considering that the symphony itself was a relatively new creation. As Beethoven’s career went on, his phrasing grew more expansive, but he never hung on a single idea for very long. That restlessness is a joy both to play and to witness, but it demands intense concentration, and maestro David Bernard and his crew were up to it. In the case of this piece, that included a fearless embrace of both nebulosity and precision on the jaunty third movement’s scherzo and a sizzling command of the rapids and rippes of the conclusion.
Bernard is a composer’s conductor. He’ll go wherever the music demands, to the most whispery pianissimo or the most roaring fortissimo: limits do not exist in his world. What distinguishes the orchestra he leads from many others is that they seize on the fun parts and highlight them, but without compromising the material that develops and builds to those moments. Other orchestras play Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 with more legato: a recent New York Philharmonic performance saw that orchestra swaying and swinging it with a warm nocturnal triumph. Bernard didn’t go there: his interpretation was more Teutonically meticulous, with a careful, split-second command of minute details. Dancing interludes were more like marches: rapidfire runs, especially from the high strings, were jeweled and clear-cut rather than slurry, no small achievement given the demands of both material and meteorology. The second movement, which draws a straight line back to Bach, was absolutely gorgeous.
And pianist Spencer Meyer brought a similarly minutely articulate, glistening approach to Beethoven’s Concerto No. 4, Op. 58. He and the orchestra negotiated transitions between cantabile and stormy elegantly, sailed through the demanding solo interlude toward the end of the first movement with flying colors, and followed a spacious, diligent interpretation that added an element of suspense as the second movement built from unease to contentment. A little later on, there’s a hammering series of jarring, off-center close harmonies straight out of a David Lynch film soundtrack, and Meyer jumped at the chance to drive them straight to the Twin Peaks lodge. Moments like that remind more than anything why Beethoven’s work is still so relevant and so exciting over 150 years later. The orchestra plays the program again today, February 10 at 3 PM at All Saints Church, 230 E 60th St. if the storm has left you stir-crazy and you need something potentially transcendent to warm you up.
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