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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.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Concert Review: An Apocalyptic Anniversary

The Park Avenue Chamber Symphony turns 15.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
David Bernard (center) at the helm of the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony.
Photo provided by Hemsing Associates.
The great city of New York is home to a vibrant community of amateur musicians, players with training and experience who do not necessarily perform full-time. One of the more eminent ensembles of the last decade has been the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony. On Sunday afternoon, the PACS celebrated its 15th anniversary Sunday with a concert at Lincoln Center's medium-sized Rose Theater, located in the Time Warner Center on Columbus Circle

For this concert, music director David Bernard assembled a large and ambitious program, one that would be outside the planning scope of most professional orchestras. The concert paired Stravinsky's ballet score The Rite of Spring with The Ring Without Words, the hour-long orchestral arrangement and condensation of the score of the Ring by the late conductor and composer Lorin Maazel.

The Rite is a demanding score, requiring an orchestra to play Stravinsky's precise rhythms in such a way that they sound slightly disorienting and off-kilter to the listener, a series of memorable composer's devices that made the whole piece sound completely revolutionary in its nature and might have been responsible for  triggering the audience to riot at the work's premier.

The plaintive bassoon solo at the start of the work had poetry and meaning. But from the first hints of rhythm--the plucked notes in the high strings and the chugging, tramping rhythm in the cellos,, Mr. Bernard chose an approach that emphasized foursquare rhythms, placing the music in order but undercutting the composer's desired effect of wild pagan energy. It was competently played, but not danced.

Matters improved slightly as the performance progressed, with the orchestra managing the proto-jazz changes in the score and the challenging, delicate passages that alternate with the grinding fortissimi. The Park Avenue players attacked the second half of the work with a renewed ferocity, building a dark, memorable crescendo around the rising chords that indicate the procession of the ancients, and blasting through the thunderous Final Dance and Sacrifice in powerful fashion.

The second half of the concert was preceded by an introduction from Mr. Bernard and a short speech by Dietlinde Maazel, the conductor's widow. They explained how the Maazel re-interpretation of the Ring (which, it should be noted ignores most of the opera Siegfried) uses only material drawn directly from Wagner himself, with no interpolations added to the music.

The double basses started the deep drone that opens Das Rheingold, creating the mysterious E flat chord that Wagner uses as a germ from which to grow the entire score of the Ring. Problems emerged with the entry of the horns. They played with watery tone as the eight-part canon rose from the deeps, finally finding sunlight at the entry of the cellos. The music then jump-cut to the Descent into Nibelheim, played with deafening enthusiasm with the percussionists banging away on anvils.

That energy carried into the Ride of the Valkyries and a performance of Wotan's Farewell that had real poetry in the performance of the low strings. This led directly into the Rhine Journey from Götterdämmerung which was marred (again) by a troubled performance of the famous offstage horn call. Siegfried's Funeral Music and the final cataclysm showed the benefits of considerable preparation, with Mr. Bernard relishing each bar of the famous final chords.

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