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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Concert Review: Wind, Weather and Beethoven

Pablo Heras-Casado's stormy debut Caramoor debut.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Stormy skies: conductor Pablo Heras-Casado faced the elements at Caramoor on Sunday.
 Photoshop by the author. 
Sunday afternoon's concert at Caramoor featuring the Orchestra of St. Luke's with pianist Emanuel Ax was supposed to be a coming-out party for  Pablo Heras-Casado: his first concert as the orchestra's new Principal Conductor since taking over the post in December of 2011.

However, the weather had other ideas.

We arried at Caramoor about 3:30pm, driving up from Brooklyn, through muggy heat under overcast skies. Sitting at the picnic tables, we were finishing our meal when I looked up. "Storm's coming," I said, finishing my last bite of chicken. I was looking at the huge grey stratus cloud looming through the trees.

"How soon?" said Emily, my significant other and provider of said meal.

"About five minutes." (I have a "barometer" in my right leg thanks to an old knee injury. It was starting to throb gently.) We packed up qucickly. I refilled the water bottles, and we got to our seats in the Venetian Theater (an outdoor amphitheater covered by a large tent) as the rain started.

This was a full-fledged storm, an hour of drenching rain that thrashed the trees and drummed on the canopy overhead. Finally, there was an announcement: the concert would go forward, but with the Beethoven symphony (the Seventh) moved to the opening half. It would, in any case be easier to hear than the other works on the program.

We waited in the tent, watching the trees dance and seeing the rivers of water from the peaks of the structure overwhelm the rain-gutters built at the corners. Some of the rain drove sideways into the tent. A woman behind us murmured about tornado warnings. I checked Doppler radar: we were well into a "red" patch on the weather map.

Finally, at 5pm, Mr. Heras-Casado came out and started the first movement of the Beethoven Seventh. From my seat (nine rows back), the orchestra was audible--but just. Softer textures were drowned out by the drumming of rain on the canopy. Louder parts, the start of the big whirling theme that Wagner called "the apotheosis of the dance" sounded as if they were being played by a staticky radio station--or on an old shellac recording.

The rain slowed and quieted in the second movement, giving the audience a chance to hear and appreciate Mr. Heras-Casado's control of tempo and phrase. This was a straightforward performance, with an emphasis on clarity of texture and a welcome swagger in the symphony's big dramatic moments. The third and fourth movements allowed the orchestra to blossom fully--as the rain had stopped and the sun was shining. The Orchestra of St. Luke's played with enthusiasm, celebrating the triumph of Beethoven over nature in one of his most dramatic symphonies.

The second half of the concert was the program that would have opened the show if the storm hadn't interfered. Ravel's Le tombeau de Couperin was played with delicate chamber-music textures, with some particularly beautiful playing from the winds, who sounded happy to be back at the dynamic levels written into the score.

Finally, the Steinway was rolled out, and Emanuel Ax joined the orchestra for an elegant, impeccably played performance of Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 3. The slow movement was the best of the three, with Mr. Ax expounding on lyric flights against Mr. Heras-Casado's pointed, subtle accompaniment. As the exuberant theme of the finale exploded from Mr. Ax's fingers, the Caramoor audience seemed relieved. The concert was ending, the evening had cooled, and the tent over the Venetian Theater was still standing.

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