Intimacy with a group of performers has its pros and cons. If the crew onstage are on their game, everyone in the audience feels like they’re in it with them. By the same token, in close quarters you hear every mistake. So it was especially rewarding to watch the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony from up close this past Sunday on the Upper East Side, through an unselfconsciously triumphant, blemish-free, world-class performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2 as well as Samuel Barber’s Knoxville Summer of 1915 and Bartok’s paradigm-shifting Dance Suite, Sz. 77, 86a.
The subtext of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2 mirrors its triumphant bursts and dips: “So you think I’m deaf,” the composer retorts: “Wait til you hear the tunes I’ve got in my head.” Conductor David Bernard led the ensemble from memory, quickly establishing a dichotomy between lingering lustre from the brass and winds and a brisk efficiency from the strings. He brought out every bit of that dreamy/acerbic contrast with a pinpoint, precise articulation, through the the regal waltz of the second movement, the bubbly dynamic leaps and dips of the third and the sweeping, majestic crescendos of the third, unafraid to let Beethoven’s puckish wit peek out from between the towering peaks at the end.
If the subtext of the Beethoven is beating the odds, the subtext of the Barber is apprehension, the calm of a southern night veiling a relentless alienation. Soprano Tamra Paselk channeled that with a minutely focused, dynamically rich performance that didn’t shy away from the waiting gloom in James Agee’s lyric. At one point early on she seemed overcome by the bittersweetness of the imagery: watching her fight and quickly pull herself out of that emotional abyss was shattering to witness. The classical world abounds with cookie-cutter singers: how refreshing to hear a singer who articulates not only the syllables – something too few classically-trained voices consistently do – but also the underlying content. The orchestra provided an aptly pillowy and then cloudy backdrop.
As joyous and refreshing as the Beethoven was, the Bartok was even better. It’s an early post-World War I piece, as challenging as anything Stravinsky ever wrote, sort of a less rhythmic take on what the Russian composer was going for with Le Sacre du Printemps. Like Stravinsky, Bartok uses his native land’s folk dances as a stepping-off point, if he doesn’t go back as many centuries (or maybe even millennia) as Stravinsky did. This performance was awash in rich irony: a caustically sarcastic pairing of bassoon and cello; deadpan noir Keystone Kops romps; Balkan chromatics and agitation alternating with the occasionally calmer, balletesque pulse. Bernard kept the suspense relentless, a look of eager anticipation on his face, as if to say, “Just stay with it, I can tell you’re feeling it,” and the orchestra responded in kind. The future may be cloudy for big metropolitan symphony orchestras but it looks positively sunny for community-based groups like this one. The Park Avenue Chamber Symphony’s next performance is May 3 at 8 PM, repeating on May 4 at 3 PM with Dvorak’s Symphony No. 8 and the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2 featuring soloist Spencer Meyer. And a smaller ensemble closer in size to the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony’s name performs wind quintets and sextets by Mozart, Taffanel and Poulenc on March 16 at 3 PM at All Saints Church, 230 E 60th St (between 2nd and 3rd Avenues).
Audiences don’t typically go to symphony orchestra concerts to be held rapt by meticulous counterpoint, or a perfect balance between ominous strings and animated brass, or to watch the orchestra trace a line straight back from Brahms to Bach. People come out to be swept away by the beauty of the music. We’ve all heard the horror stories about how classical music is in its death throes, with the graying of its fan base, the New York City Opera in bankruptcy, ad nauseum. But by judging by the size, enthusiasm, and sheer diversity of the crowd at the Greenwich Village Orchestra‘s Sunday performance, there are some circles where classical music is absolutely thriving.
And it’s safe to assume that these crowds wouldn’t be so engaged and supportive if the GVO didn’t deliver such spirited performances. Obviously, ensembles like this one benefit from a lighter workload, a greater number of rehearsals and fewer of the hassles that bedevil higher-profile orchestras, including but not limited to recycling the same old warhorses night after night while juggling an incessantly erratic barrage of newer works that often clash ridiculously with the older repertoire.
It’s a familiar formula: get the crowd’s attention with something lively, bring it down with something quieter and more substantial and then up again for a big rousing finale. And for the GVO it worked like a charm this time out. With a meticulous attention to dynamic shifts and contrasts, guest conductor Pierre Vallet brought the curtain up with a trio of pieces from Berlioz’s “concert opera” The Damnation of Faust. The first selection, Menuet des Follets, got a jolly, balletesque sway balanced by pillowy strings; the second, Ballet des Sylphes, had a nocturnal if not particularly nymphlike sweep; the third, the Rakoczy March (based on the Hungarian national song) broght the boisterously dancing energy back up.
Vallet then switched gears with a richly uneasy triptych from Ravel’s Sheherezade, a potently intense counterpart to the blitheness of the Berlioz. This particular suite, in contrast to the famous one by Rimsky-Korsakov, doesn’t bother to so much as hint at the Middle East: instead, it’s a moody, atmospheric series of art-songs. Soprano Sasha Cooke blended seamlessly into the washes of strings with a judicious wariness that was far from arioso and all the more effective for it. The opening piece, Asie, wasn’t the least bit Asian, the orchestra and singer hanging back on its swells and dips, letting the brooding, underlying stillness linger: after all, at this point Sheherezade doesn’t yet know that the finicky sultan isn’t going to kill her. The second, La Flute Enchantée, set Simon Dratfield’s bubbly yet cautiously measured flute against similarly measured rises and falls from the ensemble. The third, L’indifferent, achieved the same persistent suspense.
The concert ended joyously with Brahms’ Symphony No. 4. What was most enjoyable about Vallet’s interpretation from this particular vantage point was how historically informed it was, putting the music in context. That luxuriantly driving first movement quickly got a chance to reveal itself as a fugue, albeit one all dressed up for a night out! The second was done as proto Southwestern gothic, the orchestra playing up its Spanish tinge for all it was worth before moving on to bright string/brass contrasts.The sheer fun of the third movement, complete with cinematic chase scene midway through, provoked spontaneous applause from the crowd. The symphony and concert concluded on an appropriately impactful, rhythmic coda that was just short of puglistic, with its triumphant, Beethovenesque series of false endings awash in equal amounts lustre and neo-Baroque counterpoint. The Greenwich Village Orchestra’s next concert, on March 30 at 3 PM, has an even more auspicious program, maestro Barbara Yahr leading the group with guest violinist Hye-Jin Kim through Samuel Barber’s Adagio and Violin Concerto plus Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5. The concerts take place at the sonically excellent Washington Irving Auditorium, Irving Place at 17th Street; tickets are a $15 suggested donation, with a reception to follow.