Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

The Greenwich Village Orchestra Go Behind the Iron Curtain 2/21/10

Is it because the Greenwich Village Orchestra has a shorter season, with more rehearsals per concert, that they get everything so right, time after time? Or is it just a fortuitous match of inspired players with a conductor who is such a passionate advocate for the music on the bill? Whatever the case, our roughly weeklong tour of under-the-radar New York orchestras, beginning with the New York Scandia Symphony, then the Chelsea Symphony ended with the GVO on Sunday afternoon playing a characteristically rich, intense program that actually could have been staged somewhere in the Soviet Union during the 1930s.

First on the bill was the Sailor’s Dance from Russian Romantic composer Reinhold Gliere’s nationalistic 1927 ballet The Red Flower (f.k.a The Red Poppy). Far from being opiated, it’s essentially orchestrated Soviet surf music, such that there could have been thirty years before the Ventures at least. On the podium, Maestro Barbara Yahr led the ensemble matter-of-factly, without the hint of a grin – that was left to the audience. It’s something of a shock that a surf rock band hasn’t discovered this yet. The theme is a two-minute hit just waiting to happen.

Prokofiev’s First Violin Concerto was next. Around the time the piece debuted, a critic called it “Mendelssohnian.” He meant that as a slur, but ironically that description is spot-on. There’s considerable unease in the work, a Modern-versus-Romantic push-pull of astringency versus warm melodicism, but there’s also a dreamy, ethereal beauty to it, most notably in the concluding moderato movement where the line back to Mendelssohn is straight and true. Whether slipping so seamlessly from 3/4 to 4/4 time that it was practically unnoticeable, bringing the wash of atmospherics to a suspenseful pianissimo or guiding a vivid oboe melody casually out of the glimmering, nocturnal strings below, Yahr, guest violinist Joseph Puglia and the ensemble worked themselves into what seemed a trance and brought the crowd into the ether with them.

The piece de resistance was Shoshakovich’s Fifth Symphony. You know this one even if you don’t think you do, most likely either the big, Beethovenesque diptych of an opening theme, or the creepy waltz of a second movement that’s been featured in a thousand horror films. Shostakovich was thirty when he wrote it: he’d just been taken to task by the Soviet censors for being too western, too bright and by extension too dangerous. This was his response: by contrast to the Fourth Symphony and its cerebral, rigorously acidic architecture, the Fifth is all big hooks, a slap back at the Stalinists as if to say, be careful what you ask for. It established Shostakovich as one of the alltime great musical satirists, yet as Yahr took care to explain before the orchestra played it, parts of it are also extraordinarily beautiful. Essentially, it’s love under an occupation, a requiem for those murdered in the purges as well as an attempt to maintain a sense of normalcy while the outside world collapses.

What made this performance so utterly unique and such a perfectly lucid portrayal of the circumstances in which it was written was how integrally it was played, a unified whole torn but never completely ripped apart. Others have oversimplified it, exaggerating the tension between highs and lows, melody and atmospherics or between strings and horns: not this orchestra. Rather than highlighting one particular phrase over another, Yahr held it together with a steeliness that mightily enhanced Shostakovich’s clenched-teeth exasperation, irony and bitterness. The KGB is everywhere here, the horns, winds, or a single horn or woodwind voice signaling the alarm before the drums start up and the secret police pound at the door, whether as the bufoonishness of the waltz gives way to unfettered, sadistic menace, the gestapo interrupt the calm of a requiem by literally stepping on the melody (as they do in the wrenchingly beautiful third movement), or in the big boisterous finale where even as the party is winding up, seemingly on a triumphant note, the fascists are about to break down the door again. Shostakovich’s pal Mstislav Rostopovich was cited in the program notes as having said that if this symphony hadn’t met with such thunderous public approval, the composer would have paid for it with his life. Happily, he would go on to even greater heights of satire and savagery with his Tenth Symphony and its unsparingly brutal dismissal of Stalin (played with equally intuitive sensitivity by the GVO a couple of years ago). There was a reception afterward, a visceral sense of both triumph and relief in the air, which made perfect sense on so many levels. The Greenwich Village Orchestra’s next concert is vastly different yet equally ambitious, Samuel Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1914 and Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, to be performed at 3 PM on April 11.

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February 23, 2010 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment