Lucid Culture


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

Towering, Epic Majesty from the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony

The Park Avenue Chamber Symphony’s name is a bit of a mismoner: yesterday they were a mighty, mammoth ensemble, concluding their season with a program aptly titled Majestic Finale, pairing Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4 with Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 in midtown Manhattan. David Bernard conducted from memory, without a score: he has these pieces in his fingers, leading the orchestra with a vigorous meticulousness, bolstered by a confidence that there were no limits on where this music might go, from a whisper to a scream. Employing the entirety of the sonic spectrum, the orchestra responded with a frequently exhilarating performance.

Why, two hundred years after the fact, is Beethoven still so relevant? Ultimately, it boils down to transcendence. This was somebody who couldn’t stop writing for fear that he’d completely lose his muse, even if he could no longer perceive one. He hadn’t yet completely lost his hearing when he composed his Fourth Symphony, but by then it had become an issue. An indomitable response in the face of despair, the symphony is arguably every bit the match for his Fifth. Up close to the orchestra (close being the operative word here, a reliably welcome fringe benefit at this group’s concerts), it was impossible to ignore how difficult its thrills are to deliver. And the orchestra pulled them off, one by one. Bernard set up the fireworks up by keeping the mournful initial stillness of the first movement rapt and mysterious, to where Beethoven says something to the extent of “well, that’s enough mourning, now we’re off!” and then the fun began.

Lo-fi stereo effects were deftly balanced between lustrous woodwinds and tensely anticipatory strings, pregnant pauses executed flawlessly, the strings galloping through a thicket of glissandos with an abandon that stopped just thisshort of recklessness. By contrast, the adagio second movement took on a resonant cantabile that again set up somewhat less dramatic fireworks in the third movement’s intricately shapeshifting rhythms and then the final allegro, which was vividly Beethoven as opposed to Beethoven-esque. This orchestra gets this music.

Where to go after that showstopper? Nowhere but down. Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 is best understood in its original context as a lavishly arranged song suite. Where the Beethoven is all about ensemble playing, this is about individual voices set against a massive backdrop, both of which were briskly and efficiently delivered. Orchestra and conductor deserve credit for seizing those moments as they arrived, one by one, but conventional wisdom and cutting-edge orchestration be damned: aside from the clever permutations on the klezmer dance in the third movement and the outraged cinematics that explode with the introduction of the fourth, this is an insubstantial and vastly overrated piece of music. It would make a fitting soundtrack to an epic film that only gets interesting after everybody’s left the theatre. The program notes cited a contemporary critic’s appraisal that the audience at its debut responded enthusiastically through the end of the second movement’s cartoonish funeral march and then lost interest: yesterday the reaction was just the opposite. Which makes sense in the presence of modern ears. In the wake of a series of shamelessly pilfered folk themes – most obviously Bruder Martin, the minor-key, Teutonic version of Frere Jacques – and veering nonsensically from the comedic to the serious or quasi-serious, the outrage and heartbreak of the conclusion arrived without an iota of the clever foreshadowing that was so captivating in the Beethoven. The effect was stunning – Bernard and the ensemble took it up as far as the roof would allow – but it begged the question of whether or not it was worth the wait. By itself, it would have made a deliciously high-voltage coda after the Beethoven and would have made the orchestra’s workout somewhat less arduous.

The Park Avenue Chamber Symphony kicks off its next season auspiciously on October 27 at 8 PM and then the next day at 3 PM with Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony, Richard Strauss’ Till Eulenspiegel and Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto with Terry Eder at the piano.

May 7, 2012 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment