Lucid Culture

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

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

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

The Park Avenue Chamber Symphony Stares Down a Hurricane and Wins

Sometimes facing a threat brings out the best in musicians. Knowing that they’d have to wrap up their concert before the subway shut down at seven in anticipation of the “Frankenstorm,” did the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony hurry their show yesterday on the Upper East Side? No: whatever tension they must have been feeling, they transcended. Which is what music is all about, right?

For those who’d grown up with the pieces on the program, it was like reconnecting with old friends after a long time away and noticing that they’ve obviously been working out and are in great shape. Between those two – Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony and Beethoven’s Emperor Piano Concerto – was a merry prankster who for all his clowning around turned out to be as deep if not deeper than the old friends. That was Richard Strauss’ Till Eulenspiegel.

Anyone who might have been introduced to the Schubert wafting from the radio over the kitchen table on, say, WQXR at dinner time was treated to a welcome rediscovery. And pity those hearing this for the first time here – they’re spoiled for life. Both movements were cinematic and bursting with energy: what a career Schubert would have had in the movies if he’d been born a century later! Conductor David Bernard drew a genuinely suspenseful anticipation from the low strings in the introduction, and likewise from the brass as the second movement made its way out of a lustrous gleam.

But the revelation on the bill was the Strauss. The composer was quoted as saying that he wanted to offend audiences with this, and it’s easy to see how that could have happened: in its own precise, Teutonic way, it’s a musical satire, a raised middle finger at some of the very same conventions that Strauss would cave to later in Ein Heldenleben and elsewhere. But that’s another story: this was the young Strauss being as much of a proto punk rocker as he could have been under the circumstances. The orchestra drew obvious relish from all the mockery: the snidely swaggering elisions in mock-heroic passages and the spritely little cadenzas that always draw laughs whenever this is staged. And they made it clear that this was an angry little sprite, all the way through the bombastic march leading up to the scene where he’s on the gallows and even that can’t kill him. In its own sarcastic way, it was as much about joie de vivre as the opening piece.

After that, it was almost impossible to take the heroic first movement of the Beethoven seriously, especially because the orchestra shifted gears and embraced it with a remarkable gravitas. But pianist Terry Eder had something of the sprite in her, which came to the forefront as the second movement opened, slipping into an elegant glide with just a tinge of rubato matched expertly by the conductor and the rest of the ensemble. Bernard is not the kind of maestro who plays his cards close to the vest, and at this point he had a triumphant “yessssss” grin on his face as he did throughout much of the show. The Park Avenue Chamber Symphony’s next concert is on February 9 of next year at 8 PM, repeating on February 10 at 3 PM with an all-Beethoven program bookending the Concerto for Piano No. 4 in G major, Op. 58 with Symphonies No. 1 and No. 7.

October 29, 2012 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

Tension and Transcendence from the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony

The Park Avenue Chamber Symphony are not unknown – they’re touring China late this year – and their Manhattan concert yesterday appeared to be sold out. If you’re a fan of classical music and they’re not on your radar, they should be: they are a world-class orchestra, and not as small as “chamber symphony” necessarily implies. Sunday evening they offered fresh, inspired takes on a couple of old favorites – Richard Strauss’ Death and Transfiguration and Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, Op. 61 – as well as Benjamin Britten’s song cycle Les Illuminations.

They opened with the Britten, an orchestral setting of Rimbaud poems on diverse themes, sung here by soprano Tamra Paselk. The program notes suggested that there may be a gay subtext to Britten’s interpretation, which may or may not be true – when he wrote them, the composer might simply have been glad to be hanging out in America, far from the stodginess of British high society. Throughout the nine-part suite for strings and voice, there was a recurrent sense of unease in the orchestra, counterbalanced, sometimes to triumphantly joyous extreme, by Paselk’s interpretation. With the occasional, unexpected sudden leap and chromatics that play against the orchestra, these were not easy songs to sing, but she owned them, moving from clenched-teeth intensity to redemptive joy to end on an unexpectedly rapt note.

This orchestra’s version of Death and Transfiguration wasn’t much about death, but it was all about transfiguration – still, intense apprehension giving way to hope. Conductor David Bernard didn’t leave an inch of headroom, taking it to the rafters with a bang at the first opportunity, which worked magically because the dynamics to come later would bring it all the way back down, a monumental contrast. It’s amazing how modern this piece is. A lot of orchestras have done it fairly safely as a tone poem of sorts; this version, for all its blazing crescendos, was an impressive reminder of how little the melody actually moves around, how much of it foreshadows “horizontal music,” and how dynamics can transform it from decently suspenseful to absolutely electric. Nietzsche, who wasn’t far behind (Strauss would write Zarathustra only a couple years later), would have approved.

Metropolitan Opera orchestra concertmaster David Chan played the violin concerto from memory with an intuitive sense of touch, varying from crystalline to split-second doublestops and more than one subtly modulated vibrato approach. There’s a series of three big insistent chords that leap unexpectedly out of one of the early solo cadenzas, and Bernard brought the orchestra in to land with an understatedly nimble assurance. Although the work dates from 1806, Beethoven is already hinting amidst the comfortably nocturnal Haydn-influenced highclass alehouse consonance – this was from a time before cocktails were invented – at the kind of melodic and architectural paradigm shifts of his last sonatas and string quartets. Through subtle and then more dramatic melodic variations, with and without the ensemble, Chan methodically assembled a launching pad for the final victory round. After their Chinese tour, the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony wrap up their season with Beethoven’s Symphony #4 and Mahler’s Symphony #1 on May 5 and 6.

October 24, 2011 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment