Crazy Segues and a Transcendent Lincoln Center Performance by the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony
Anyone who experienced Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring for the first time in concert Sunday at the Rose Theatre at Jazz at Lincoln Center is spoiled for life. The Park Avenue Chamber Symphony’s recording of the piece is good; their performance this time out was transcendent. One hopes that they recorded this as well, because it will supersede their previous one. Conductor David Bernard remarked privately before the concert that his game plan for what might otherwise seem like a bizarre juxtaposition of the Stravinsky with Lorin Maazel’s mashup of Wagner opera melodies, The Ring Without Words, was to illustrate how both suites draw from folk themes. And he’s right on both counts, but what he didn’t allude to is what the orchestra was challenged to say with the music: “Just look what this mighty beast can do.” And they delivered.
Mechanically speaking, the Rite of Spring is a minefield in more than one sense of the word: there’s always something going off unexpectedly somewhere, and there are pitfalls everywhere. But the orchestra danced around them, with passion and fervor, methodically one by one. Solos were precise and emphatic, from Gabriel Levine’s looming bassoon, to Brett Bakalar’s similarly resonant english horn and the thunderingly meticulous percussion of Robert Kelly and Paul Robertson, among other standout moments. Segues were similarly seamless, contrasts were vivid and Stravinsky’s whirling exchanges of voices were expertly choreographed. And much as the orchestra left no doubt that the composer’s “stone age ballet” was a dance party, Bernard had his serious hat on all the way through, conducting from memory with a clenched-teeth intensity in contrast to his usual bounding, beaming, joyous presence in front of the ensemble.
On face value, following with the suite of popular Wagner tunes was a rather drastic change, requiring the orchestra to shift abruptly from high gear to low, to switch on a dime from staccato thrash to recurrent washes of atmospherics, a daunting task to say the least. But the group proved they could do it. On one hand, the music was everything Stravinsky was ostensibly trying to upend: comfortable, audience-friendly heroic themes laced with nostalgia. And Maazel’s artful segues may not have completely eliminated the camp factor, even though the vocals were edited out. But his arrangement does manage to sidestep what Sir Thomas Beecham famously groused about during one particular Wagner rehearsal: “Three hours later, and we’re still playing the same bloody theme!” And those melodies’ unselfconscious, singalong attractiveness is due at least in part to the folk tunes that Wagner fell back on. Maybe it wasn’t such a crazy segue after all. The Park Avenue Chamber Symphony’s next concert is on May 16 at 8 PM at All Saints Church, 230 E 60th St. just west of First Ave., where they’ll be playing music of Hindemith, Schumann and Bach.