Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

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).

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