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JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

A Radically Successful New Interpretation of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony

What was it like to hear Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony for the umpteenth time? Seated within the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony last night at the DiMenna Center, unlike any other. Placing musicians on the perimeter of an audience is both an old theatrical trick and an experience common to anyone who’s ever seen a marching band or a drum corps competition. But placing a crowd within various sections of a symphony orchestra is something new and exciting.

Conductor David Bernard was candid about the challenges posed by working with such an unorthodox configuration. “I found myself looking for people and not finding them,” he grinned during a lively Q&A with the crowd after the performance. “And you looked back at me,” he told the audience, “And said, ‘Don’t look at me, I don’t come in yet.’”

This audience was a particularly sophisticated and engaged one. Concertgoers marveled at the difficulty of sustaining vibrato, especially in unison with an entire string section; that the players, many of them estranged from the usual stage plot, had to be especially on their toes for cues; and the simple fact that a symphony orchestra performance requires several dozen musicians to be simultaneously at the top of their game, in sync. Compounding the basic challenge of pulling off a famous Beethoven symphony that pretty much every classical fan knows well, if not by heart, was the slight doppler effect created by having musicians separated so far from each other – an aspect that the audience was aware of. That the orchestra was sensitive to such minute rhythmic shifts and responded as well as they did speaks to the quality of this ensemble’s musicianship.

Bernard has boundless enthusiasm and can’t resist sharing it, a useful quality considering that he was wearing his impresario’s hat as well as his conductor’s one. Getting to watch him from the perspective of an orchestra member reinforced earlier perceptions: his relationship to the musicians was a constant push-pull, a friendly but firm “Gimme!” and then a beaming “yessss” when the orchestra delivered. Playing music is like acting; you have to trust the people you’re onstage with, and Bernard’s unassailable confidence has obviously filtered down to this crew.

What was the experience like? Those in the audience who were willing to cop to not having seen much classical music (a lot wouldn’t admit it), unsurprisingly, seemed the most thrilled, as people tend to be after their first exposure to this symphony. From the perspective of having grown up with it – first a comfortable friend wafting in from WQXR atop the family fridge, then later being transfixed by it both in concert and by close, uninterrupted listening on a Sony walkman (remember those?) – this was still a revelation.

First of all, depending on where audience members were situated, certain voices would be elevated or would even drown out others. One element that came into stunning focus was how subtly yet stunningly Beethoven shifts meters. Another was the sophistication of the counterpoint (many in the crowd marveled at that). Bernard addressed the grimness and black humor of the opening movement by explaining that he saw it as a relentless tug-of-war between energy and restraint, one that should leave both performers and listeners spent by the time it’s over. But the rest of the symphony is often uproariously funny. That buffoonish faux-patriotic march in the second movement, the point where an elegant waltz suddenly becomes a stilted Punch-and-Judy theme, and the shlemiel sentry of a bassoon on the perimeter, crying wolf…or maybe not? It was hard to resist laughing out loud, and disrupting the musicians. What was more impressive was how the orchestra managed to get through those passages, and similar LMAO moments, with a straight face.

Taking the audience out of their element and challenging them to watch, and listen, literally immersed in the music, could become this orchestra’s shtick…or at least one among many. It could make them very, very popular. One older gentleman in the crowd explained that at last he understood the thrill his son experienced onstage with his rock band. This was like being in that band, multiplied a dozen times over. After all, who wouldn’t want to be onstage performing Beethoven’s Fifth?

The Park Avenue Chamber Symphony’s next concert is at 8 PM on May 21 at All Saints Church on 60th St. just west of First Ave. featuring Elgar’s Cello Concerto with the fantastic Inbal Segev as soloist, plus Mendelssohn’s Scottish Symphony.. It’s not known how traditionally or untraditionally Bernard might stage it. That prospect alone makes it enticing.

February 7, 2016 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

An Ambitious Take on Some Familiar Challenges by the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony

It’s often overlooked how changes in one field of music often mirror those in another. The rise of the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony into a reliably bonafide vehicle for first-class classical performance mirrors how the demise of the big record labels has relegated the realm of rock and other amplified original music to independent artists. Other volunteer New York orchestral ensembles – the well-loved Greenwich Village Orchestra, the innovative Chelsea Symphony and the fearlessly individualistic new Queensboro Symphony Orchestra – deliver quality programming, but in the past several months especially, none of them have surpassed their Park Avenue colleagues. Nor, it seems, has the New York Philharmonic.

Conductor David Bernard never made a connection he didn’t want to share with the world, an especially ambitious goal at the Park Avenue group’s concert this past Saturday night. First on the bill was a spine-tingling take of Borodin’s Polyvestian Dances. As a curtain-lifter, it was a whale of a challenge, but the maestro’s clenched-teeth, “we’re going to pull this off come hell or high water” presence pulled every available ounce of energy and impassioned playing out of the musicians onstage. A few years back, this group’s weak spot was the high strings, which would lag sometimes or fall out of sync. No more. Wow! What a thrill it was to hear the shivery, staccato cascades of this rampaging Russian dance suite fly with equal parts abandon and minute focus from stage right.

The intensity continued courtesy of guest pianist Jeffrey Biegel, who stunned the crowd with a fiercely and similarly impassioned, marathon run through the fortissimo torrents and machinegunning virtuoso volleys of Saint-Saens’ Piano Concerto No. 2 in G Minor, Op. 22. While the dynamically rich, goosebump-inducing High Romantic swells and dips through triumph and angst and finally more triumph in the end were centered in the piano, the orchestra is also highly engaged rather than a backdrop, and the lushness and frequent solo passages from throughout the group were robust and assured.

Concluding the program was a particularly ambitious multimedia performance of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherezade, with violinist Bela Horvath in the solo spotlight with his silken, often downright plaintive resonance. There were also projections, and narrator Peninnah Schram in the role of “storyteller.” Many times an orchestra will provide a program listing the various points in a piece that illustrate one thing or another; Schram, with her precise, rhythmic cadences, kept perfect pace with the music as she related the story, a triumph of feminist pacifism over a power-and-grief-crazed tyrant.

Here’s where things got crazy, and not because the orchestra and Schram weren’t locked in, because they were. When the narration was audible, the effect was a refreshing change from, say, flipping through the program like you might do with a paperback edition of Shakespeare at Shakespeare in the Park to follow along with the plotline. Trouble is, it wasn’t always, and this was neither the fault of the orchestra – which Bernard kept on a steady, dynamic pace through the work’s famously austere, ambered quasi-orientalisms – nor Schram either. The problem was that the speakers she was running through were placed too close to the stage, and facing the crowd rather than, say, facing each further back, along the sidelines where sonic competition with the mighty group onstage wouldn’t have been an issue. And this wouldn’t even have been a factor had the orchestra been playing Jazz at Lincoln Center or Carnegie Hall, both venues where they’ve performed before with richly good results.

The Park Avenue Chamber Symphony’s next concert is December 6 at 3 PM at Rose Theatre at Jazz at Lincoln Center, focusing on a theme of innovation and paradigm shifts, pairing Gershwin’s Concerto in F with pianist Ted Rosenthal alongside Bartok’s challenging, high-voltage Concerto for Orchestra.

October 29, 2015 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

February 25, 2015 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Karine Poghosyan and David Bernard Revel in the Unserious Side of Beethoven

Anyone who thinks classical music is stuffy didn’t go out into the storm last night to see Karine Poghosyan play Beethoven at the DiMenna Center. Joining her in an uproariously conspiratorial performance of the Piano Concerto No. 1, Op. 15 and then switching gears with a fiery, impassioned take of the Piano Concerto No. 3, Op. 37 were conductor David Bernard and a good proportion of the majestically sweeping Park Avenue Chamber Symphony. The first part of the performance was like watching two good friends share a long, amusing yarn, making sure at the same time that everyone in the audience was in on it. It’s as if Bernard had pulled Poghosyan aside during rehearsal and said something like, “Look, we both know how funny Beethoven is. Let’s see who besides us and the orchestra gets this, huh?”

To which Poghosyan probably replied with a wink (she made her orchestral debut with this same piece while still in middle school). And the synergy worked like a charm, Poghosyan’s erudite wit matched to Bernard’s usual meticulously dynamic direction. Some of the humor in the first of the concertos is rather subtle and deadpan but much of it is very broad, particularly in the series of peek-a-boo phrases between the piano and voices throughout the orchestra. Poghosyan, in particular, got tons of punchlines and made the most of them, beginning with her introduction where she really took her time sidling in as the orchestra backed off, as if to say, “What was that racket all about? Get lost. I’m going to show you how this is done!”

Between movements, conductor and pianist exchanged over-the-shoulder peeks at each other; neither could resist breaking into a grin. Beyond the hijinks, it was fun to watch how much Beethoven was already pushing the envelope with this piece, engaging the orchestra more than simply as a backdrop for piano pyrotechnics. But fun ultimately won out of whatever paradigms were being shifted. “It’s such a goofy piece of music!” Poghosyan confided afterward.

The backstory to both the works on the bill, which Bernard couldn’t resist relating, is that Concerto No. 1 is not the first one Beethoven wrote, nor is No. 3 in correct sequence either – that’s just the order in which they were published. That solves the dilemma of how some of the cadenzas in No. 3 echo those in No. 4 – publishers just couldn’t keep up with the guy. And this one required everyone onstage to put their serious hats on, which they did, especially Poghosyan. From the faux-gypsy themes, dripping with sarcasm, that open the piece, all the way through to a vindictive cadenza that Poghosyan hit with pure venom, to its more jaunty if still somewhat cynical conclusion, the musicians left no doubt that this was a kiss-off. Had Beethoven been spurned? Had someone reneged on a fat commission? Whatever might have inspired him, the performance vividly grounded the buffo theatrics that opened the show.

Poghosyan, a leading advocate of the music of Aram Kachaturian, explores that repertoire at an intimate benefit performance on Feb 11 at 7 PM at the Louis Meisel Gallery, 141 Prince Street in SoHo in conjunction with an exibition of her father Razmik‘s paintings. And Bernard directs the Park Ave. Chamber Symphony in a performance of Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps and Lorin Maazel’s arrangement of Wagner themes, The Ring Without Words at Rose Theatre at Jazz at Lincoln Center on February 22 at 3 PM.

December 17, 2014 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

An Exhilarating, Insightful Program from the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony

It obviously wasn’t conductor David Bernard’s intention to write his own review of the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony’s concert this past Sunday on the Upper East Side. But he was in a particularly good mood to share some insights about how he and the ensemble were going to approach the program – and what might be useful from a listener’s perspective. And those insights were right on the money – thanks for your help, maestro! He joked that the bill was”essentially a tribute to the New York Philharmonic,” being that their recently retired principal clarinetist Stanley Drucker would be featured on the Mozart Clarinet Concerto, followed by Dvorak’s New World Symphony, which the NY Phil famously premiered.

Bernard explained the dramatic opening piece, Carl Nielsen’s Helios Overture as a “postcard,” which it is, since the Danish composer wrote it on holiday in Greece. But as Bernard took care to mention, it’s no ordinary postcard, and the orchestra did justice to its sheer, majestic magnificence, from an almost impeceptible intro, a long climb upward, bright beams bursting through and then dancing clouds voiced by high strings amidst a bright brass-fueled fugue. It’s more Classical than Romantic when it comes to the interchange of voices that make Nielsen’s music so much fun to conduct – and witness close up.

Bernard introduced some controversy, voicing the opinion that the Mozart Clarinet Concerto, being the composer’s final finished work, is more of a self-penned obituary than the famous Requiem. Since so much of the Requiem is either repetition, or wasn’t even written by Mozart himself, that’s plausible, and as the group played it, Bernard’s contention was hard to argue against. Drucker – who’s played this as much or more than any symphony orchestra clarinetist alive – brought a wise, woody tone and a bubbly but measured joie de vivre to the more animated sections over a lush backdrop. Bernard described it as wistful rather than morose, and the orchestra nailed that emotion, especially when the dancing cascades in the third movement interchanged with a pensive expansiveness, as if to say, you mean we have to stop here? But we’re having so much fun!

Introducing the Dvorak, the conductor implored the audience to listen with fresh ears: “We’ve all heard this before,” he admitted, “But it is a masterpiece.” And the performance reaffirmed that: the PACS record and release a lot of their concerts on itunes and at Spotify and on cd, and this one deserves to be one of them. Individual voices, whether from the bass section, Brett Bakalar’s crystalline English horn solos, and the rest of the group were precise and distinct, the strings cohesive and pillowy – and sometimes blustery – and the suspense nonstop, for those in the crowd with the ability to defamiliarize from previous experiences with it. Here’s one possible interpretation: the two most recurrent themes are a cowboy tune and a minor-key blues riff, right? So, with all the aggressively circling battle scenes and fervent marches, could this be a coded history of American imperialism: cowboys versus Indians? Slavers and slaves? Or something more Slavic, maybe? After all, Dvorak knew how often his own turf in what’s now the Czech Republic had been overrun by invaders, so could this ostensibly American symphony have a subtext that’s much closer to home?

The Park Avenue Chamber Symphony’s next concert is an auspicious one, on February 22, 2015 at 3 PM at Rose Theatre in the Jazz at Lincoln Center complex, where they’ll be playing Lorin Maazel’s Wagner arrangement, The Ring Without Words, as well as Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps.

And coming up at the Czech Center (321 E 73rd St.) in the upstairs gallery, Dvorak’s original score for the New World Symphony will be on display daily from Nov 17 to 21 from 1 to 8 PM. It’ll be the first time in decades that the manuscript has been outside of Czech territory.

November 13, 2014 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A World-Class Symphony Orchestra on the Upper East Side

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).

February 27, 2014 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Daniela Liebman Makes a Stunning Debut with the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony

The big story at the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony‘s performance at Carnegie Hall this past Sunday was pianist Daniela Liebman‘s debut. But the orchestra did their best to pre-empt that. They exploded with their introductory piece, Dvorak’s Carnival Overture, more curtain-burner than curtain-lifter. Maestro David Bernard conducted from memory, as he did with all but one of the works on the program. He’s a lot of fun to watch, a very kinetic presence, big smile stretched across his face, bouncing on the balls of his feet. The work has the same romping energy as the composer’s Slavonic Dances, but with considerably more dynamics, done plushly, with pinpoint precision and an unexpectedly delicate balance between the brass and strings for such a robust piece of music.

If the thought of an eleven-year-old tackling Shostakovich in front of a sold-out house makes you wince, you’re not alone. What’s the likelihood that a young middle-schooler, with her limited life experience, slight build and small hands, would have the stamina and technique, let alone the emotional depth, to deliver anything more than a rote version of the composer’s Piano Concerto No. 2, Op. 102? This isn’t Shostakovich the outraged witness; this is the 20th century’s greatest musical ironist at the peak of his sardonic, puckish, satirical power. Shostakovich wrote it in 1957 as a showcase for his pianist son Maxim, obviously something of a parody of the sturm und drang of the traditional High Romantic concerto form. But the simple fact that Daniela Liebman would choose this darkly amusing piece, with its seething anti-fascist subtext, over, say, something more straightforward by Beethoven or Brahms or Mozart, says a lot. And she seemed to intuitively grasp it, playing with a deadpan intensity and just the hint of a wink, whether adding a touch of evil when the dancing first movement morphed into a coldly marionettish mockery, or with a coolly singleminded focus as the piece playfully slid into 7/8 time in the final movement. Shostakovich himself had a hard time getting his own hands around several of the rising unison passages that occur about midway through, but Liebman pulled them off with aplomb. Depth is not a quality that only older people can access, and Liebman left no doubt that she is a deep soul. She also loves the spotlight, treating the crowd to rapidfire, triumphant solo versions of Vitaly Fillipenko’s cruelly difficult, staccato Toccata as well as a Chopin etude, earning more than one standing ovation in the process.

The closing work on the bill was Tschaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Fantasy-Overture, which Bernard and the ensemble immersed in a dreamy unease that never quite relented, an apt illustration of the doomed lovers, through long crescendos to a stormy dance, an absolutely lustrous brass interlude and a series of big Beethovenesque endings. This was a world-class, majestic performance.

The orchestra also played a steady, Teutonically matter-of-fact version of the Brahms Violin Concerto. Featured violinist Jourdan Urbach got an old-fashioned standing ovation after the first movement, but to be fair, the solos from the oboe and then Alix Raspe’s harp a bit later on were every bit as compelling. The Park Avenue Chamber Symphony’s next concert is February 22, 2014 at 8 PM at All Saints Church, 230 E 60th St (between 2nd and 3rd Aves) featuring Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2, Samuel Barber’s Knoxville Summer 1915 and Dvorak’s Dance Suite for Orchestra.

October 29, 2013 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Park Avenue Chamber Symphony Brings Their Lush, Towering Sound to Carnegie Hall This October 27

The massive, lush Park Avenue Chamber Symphony with David Bernard on the podium make their latest appearance at Carnegie Hall on Oct 27 at 2 PM at Stern Auditorium, playing Dvorak’s  Carnival Overture, the Brahms Violin Concerto with Jourdan Urbach on violin,  Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 2 with Daniela Liebman on piano and then Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet fantasy-overture. The Upper East Side’s counterpart to the ensembles across the park at Lincoln Center also regularly release recordings of their concerts, just as the NY Phil does, and many of them are very choice. It’s a great marketing concept: truth in advertising, what you hear is exactly what you get in concert. More orchestras should do this.

The latest in this orchestra’s ongoing releases pairs Beethoven’s Symphonies No. 1 and 7. The full-bodied performance of the former captures the joy of Beethoven exploring the sonic extremes that the relatively newfangled symphonic form allowed, and in his case encouraged: that his symphonies would become his most popular works comes as no surprise after hearing this. The recording of No. 7 is similarly dynamic – a consistent quality of this orchestra – pairing understatedly explosive pageantry against the tightly controlled, richly creative songcraft that dominates the final three movements.

The orchestra’s previous release is one of the most tantalizing recordings in their extensive catalog, an irresistibly high-spirited take of Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony along with Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony. It’s easy to take the Mendelssohn as a romp, but there’s also an almost conspiratorial calm to counter the dancing themes that dominate the work: again, Bernard has the ensemble working rich dynamic contrasts. Another treat in the orchestra’s catalog, from a few years back, is arguably the most plush, luxuriant recent recording of Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2. For anything that remotely resembles this, you have to go back to the 1970s for Yevgeny Svetlanov’s version with the Moscow Symphony Orchestra. No doubt they will record the upcoming Carnegie Hall concert, for which tickets are still available as of this writing.

October 22, 2013 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

February 10, 2013 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Some Insights from Awardwinning Conductor David Bernard of the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony

Most cities are lucky to have a single symphony orchestra. Here in New York, classical music audiences have a far greater number of ensembles to choose from. Not only do we have the flagship New York Philharmonic, we’ve got several other first-rate orchestras, some of them simmering just under the radar. One of the finest of these ensembles is the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony, a full-size symphony orchestra led by charismatic maestro David Bernard. Their 2012-13 season begins this October 27 at 8 PM with a performance of Schubert’s Symphony No. 8, “Unfinished;” Richard Strauss’ Till Eulenspeigel’s Merry Pranks and the Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 5, “Emperor” with Terry Eder on piano, at All Saints Church, 230 E 60th St, between Second and Third Avenues. Maestro Bernard took some time away from his schedule to shed some light on what he and the Chamber Symphony have in store for this season:

Lucid Culture’s Correspondent: First of all, congratulations for winning a First Prize in the Orchestral Conducting Competition of the American Prize. Was there a winning performance, and what was the victorious piece?

David Bernard: Thanks. I am very proud, not only of this, but also for being awarded a First Prize in Orchestral Performance together with the orchestra. Both awards are great recognition. The primary work in the Conducting Competition submission was the performance of Strauss’ Tod und Verklärung – Death and Transfiguration – from October 2011 – which I believe you attended.

LCC: Yes, I was there. That’s a piece that’s very close to my heart, which explains why I’ve seen it performed several times. In fact, I was transfixed by your version: the dynamic range and attention to detail surpassed any performance of that piece that I’ve witnessed. Needless to say, I never expected that a “chamber symphony” would deliver my alltime favorite version of Tod und Verklarung! Which leads me to the next question: as anyone who’s seen the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony in concert will attest, your orchestra is a mighty beast. But one hears the term “chamber symphony” and thinks of maybe a twelve-piece string orchestra. Is that how the group originated? Do you think the name fits at this point?

DB: Yes, our name is a frequent point of discussion, especially when we program larger repertoire. Certainly an orchestra that performs Mahler with a complement of eighty is not a “chamber orchestra.” When we started thirteen years ago, we were an orchestra of twenty-two. When it came time to choose a name, we had a feeling we would grow, so rather than use the name “chamber orchestra” we chose “chamber symphony,” which suggests a larger complement of musicians. We were, in fact, a little small to be a “chamber symphony” at the time, but when we did grow larger, it suited us. Currently, with seventy to eighty members depending on the repertoire, we are not so large yet as to call ourselves a “philharmonic” of say a hundred performers. I see “chamber symphony” as descriptive of that upper middle ground, which is quite versatile, as we can effectively deliver performances of a wide range of repertoire, from Bach to Mahler, in our intimate venue. But I am sure this will be an ongoing discussion, and perhaps sometime down the road we will change our name to reflect our growth.

LCC: You founded the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony thirteen years ago. What are your favorite, most memorable experiences?

DB: There are so many. Our many performances at New York’s major venues – Carnegie Hall, Avery Fisher Hall and Alice Tully Hall. Our performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 with a chorus of more than 200 singers at Riverside Church. Working with Whoopi Goldberg as the narrator in our performance of Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf”. And of course our tour of China this past Winter.

LCC: Tell me about that tour of China. I imagine you have a lot of stories. How did the invitation to play there originate? How do the concert halls and audiences in China compare to what we have over here? Did you have to leave your phone with customs and pick it up on the way out?

DB: The Chinese were very gracious and attentive, and they didn’t have an interest in my cell phone – which is a good thing, for it came in very handy dealing with the many logistical hurdles that typically accompany a nine-city tour like ours! We were invited to perform a series of holiday concerts in China after a representative of China attended one of our performances in New York City. It was an extraordinary experience for the entire orchestra. Our performance itinerary of nine cities in fifteen days – Beijing, Qingdao, Dalian, Jinzhou, Chaoyang, Shenzhen, Guangzhou, Shenyang and Xi’an – was a bit of a whirlwind, but it was very exciting and through the experience, the orchestra bonded on a more personal level. The concerts were held in the major concert halls in each city, some of which were absolutely spectacular. I would certainly put Beijing Concert Hall, Qingdao Grand Theater, Shenzhen Symphony Hall, Xi’an Concert Hall and Xinghai Symphony Hall in Guangzhou in the same class as the best American concert halls in terms of acoustics and overall quality. Since these concerts were billed as holiday concerts, our repertoire was mostly light classical – Strauss’ Die Fledermaus Overture, Rossini’s William Tell Overture, Ponchielli’s Dance of the Hours, etcetera, as well as two Chinese works: Dance of the Yao Tribe, which is a gorgeous work by Liu Tieshan and Mao Yuan, and In Praise of the Red Flag, by Lü Qiming. Audiences were very enthusiastic, especially when we performed the Chinese works. An interesting tidbit is the special affinity the Chinese have for Strauss’ Radetzky March, which must be played as the last of many encores. The custom is that when the Radetzky March is performed, the political leaders exit the hall first while the audience claps its hands to the beat of the march – and we had some very enthusiastic clappers, I must say! We also performed some American music. Copland’s Hoe Down from Rodeo was a big hit – again the audience couldn’t help but clap along – as was an arrangement of Bernstein’s West Side Story, and music from John Williams’ Star Wars. In some concerts, I did a quick change into a Darth Vader costume and conducted the Star Wars music with a light saber. The Chinese loved it – Star Wars is very popular there.

LCC: That’s a great idea, I think more conductors should consider using a light saber – at least the kind that doesn’t go “mmmmmmmm.” Now in my estimation, the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony ranks among New York’s best orchestras – and by that I mean the New York Phil, obviously; the Greenwich Village Orchestra, who never disappoint; the imaginative, theatrically-inclined Chelsea Symphony; the Brooklyn Phil, who do everything from Beethoven to hip-hop; and the Knights, who always seem to be having fun as they jump from century to century. How do you differentiate yourselves? Would you say that there’s a defining characteristic to the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony?

DB: I am really excited about the overall concert experience we offer our audiences. We combine very high quality music making, eclectic and interesting repertoire, first-rate soloists and an intimate venue into a compelling and inexpensive package that our audiences love. Concertgoers are ecstatic about all of this, but especially the intimacy. They say that we make the concert experience come alive through experiencing not only themusic, but the musicians in a much more personal way than a traditional concert—they feel almost as though they are IN the orchestra. This is a big difference to traditional concert venues, which tend to put the audience at a distance. Also, we perform regularly on the Upper East Side. The East Side of Manhattan hasn’t traditionally been the hub for the arts, so through our concert series at All Saints Church – located around the corner from Bloomingdales – we serve as a key cultural resource to this community.

Our mission does not end with our concert season. We work very hard to support music education organizations through fundraising and benefit concerts. Arts institutions are facing difficult times and if you believe in the arts as a cornerstone of society, we need now more than ever, communities that are both arts aware and arts involved. A great way to achieve this goal is to help arts education programs thrive in our schools so we can develop well-rounded people who attend concerts and maybe even donate to their local arts organizations. Through the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony’s fundraising efforts, we have helped establish a new Scholarship Fund for students at the Juilliard School’s Pre-College Division and have raised money for the Lucy Moses Community Music School’s Suzuki Scholarship Program. We have established a particularly longstanding relationship with The Harmony Program—a New York City organization that provides music lessons to economically disadvantaged children and is modeled after Venezuela’s world-famous model of music education, “El Sistema”

LCC: That intimacy between orchestra and audience, I think, really defines the concert experience that the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony has to offer – the atmosphere at All Saints Church really is like being a part of the orchestra. How did you end up there?

DB: Although we have had the privilege of performing in New York’s major concert halls throughout the years, our home has usually been in a New York City church. In 2005, we began an exhaustive search for a new home and found All Saints Church. It has wonderful acoustics, and while being intimate, can also handle performances of large works such as Strauss and Mahler. Over the years we have developed a very strong partnership with All Saints Church. But even early on in our relationship, the church relocated their front set of pews to make room for our string section! We are fortunate to have such a great partner.

LCC: This season’s concluding concerts on May 4 and 5 of 2013 feature the absolutely brilliant pianist Kariné Poghosyan joining the orchestra for the Mozart Concerto for Piano No. 23 in A major, a piece that it seems would be effortless for her. I’m always interested in how musical connections are made. How did this one come about?

DB: We had our eye on Kariné for several years, and finally engaged her to perform Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 at our February 2011 concert series. We had a fantastic collaboration. She was superb and both the audience and the orchestra loved her. This season, as I was looking for a concerto to complement the Kraft work with Tchaikovsky’s rich and passionate Fifth Symphony, this particular Mozart piano concerto – and Ms. Poghosyan – instantly came to mind. It turned out she was eager to play that work, so it was kismet! She is a brilliant and sensitive artist, and we look forward to working with her again.

LCC: Like the New York Phil, the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony has a lot of recordings, which can all be heard or at least sampled on your music page – everything from the Rachmaninoff Symphony No. 2, to Dvorak, Stravinsky, Vaughan Williams, Gershwin, the Four Seasons and the Barber Adagio. Which are all probably the best advertising you could ever get. Do you record every concert you play? Do you have a favorite among them?

DB: The most exciting thing about our catalog of recordings is that it represents a portal to a whole new international audience. We record many of our concerts, which you cansample on our website or download/stream in full using a wide range of sources: iTunes, Amazon.com, Google Play, Spotify and MOG, to name a few. And as you point out, it is great for marketing and brand-building. Looking at our logs, we have regular streamers from around the globe! Picking a favorite is difficult. I love them all, as they are the result of great music making experiences with the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony.

LCC: I’m always curious about how conductors come up with a choice of repertoire for their concert seasons. For example, this season’s opening concert series, on October 27th and 28th is rather eclectic: Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony, Strauss’ Till Eulenspeigel and Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto with soloist Terry Eder. You’ve got plenty of gravitas, but also quirky frivolity. What is your programming game plan?

DB: Programming a season is similar to solving a Rubik’s Cube: there are many dimensions that must be solved for simultaneously. One must balance the variety and selection of works throughout the season with the adjacencies of works within each program, audience preferences, the introduction of new repertoire, inclusion of the familiar and recency of past performances. I have a few longer- term initiatives as well—completing our cycles of Beethoven and Brahms Symphonies as well as cycle of Strauss’ Tone Poems. So each season our audiences are treated to at least one Beethoven Symphony – this season we have programmed two, the First and the Seventh. We will complete the Beethoven cycle next Fall with the Second Symphony and the Strauss Cycle next Fall with Don Juan. The Brahms Cycle will be completed in 2014.

I also love to premiere new works and expand the repertoire. The Park Avenue Chamber Symphony has a rich history of programming premieres, including works by Bruce Adolphe, Chris Caswell and John Mackey. Last season we premiered a jazz piano concerto written and performed by Ted Rosenthal, which was especially satisfying as Ted is an extraordinary musician, composer and performer: we subsequently released a recording of this work which is available on iTunes and Amazon.com. And in May we will be giving the New York Premiere of Leo Kraft’s Variations for Orchestra. We have a deep and ongoing commitment to the music of our time.

Within a single program, I often enjoy programming works of similar lineage that also represent great variety. Our October program of Schubert, Strauss and Beethoven is an example, representing the finest Germanic symphonic music, yet each work offers a distinctly unique experience. Despite its popularity, Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony refuses to become stale with sublime, timeless and unforgettable phrases. You can feel Schubert’s soul in every note as he guides you through a wild ride that ends with a spiritual ascent. In Till Eulenspeigel, Strauss offers a highly programmatic and exciting account of the antics of a 14th-century prankster that is masterfully crafted and scored. It offers great contrast to the Schubert and I think it’s a marvelous way to close the first half of the program. Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto is in many ways a synthesis of both the Schubert and the Strauss across the stream of movements, we get heroism, deeply felt melancholy and a frolicking romp to a triumphant conclusion that ties the evening together. I hope that by the end of the program our audience will be energized, enlightened and entertained in a way that only classical music can offer.

September 15, 2012 Posted by | classical music, interview, Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment