Good harbors, convenient Community-Supported-Agriculture, and great music: Boston’s North Shore is full of treasures. One of these was highlighted on Saturday, November 14, 2009, in the First Universalist Church of Salem (just off Federal St.), with an all-Beethoven program presented by The Symphony by the Sea. I overheard one audience member describing it: “I heard the Beethoven Symphony at the BSO last week, and I have to say, I liked this one much better.” “This one” was part of a program consisting of the 12 Contradances WoO 14, five pieces from the ballet music for The Creatures of Prometheus (Die Geschöpfe des Prometheus, Op. 43) and the Third Symphony.
One might think that 12 short pieces in simple forms would be tedious. Not so! Under the baton of Donald Palma, the Symphony by the Sea (about 35 players) was just right for the music. The balance was probably as close to what Beethoven imagined as one is likely to hear: Enough strings to make an orchestral sound, but not so many that the winds and brass became strident.
Immediately, the entrance of the horns signaled we were in for some fine music-making. Palma led the orchestra through the arresting entrance of the horns, into the surprising appearance of the theme from the 3rd Symphony in the seventh piece, to the clarinet solos in the graceful, on-your-toes dance of the final piece, making the set nicely formed and full of life.
The startling opening chords of the Overture to the Ballet music continued the adventure. The “How dry I am” melody in the horns was soothed by Johathan Knox’s elegant oboe solo (Knox is the featured soloist in the January program). The dissonances in the Third Symphony were stunningly wrought. The addition of a third bass in the symphony produced a richer and deeper weight that exemplified the ear that Palma brings to his work. Throughout the concert, new colors, contrasting textures, and speeds of development delighted enthusiastic listeners.
Donald Palma’s (as well as the orchestra members) attention to musical detail was constantly evident in the careful blending and balancing of phrases and colors. When the violins were joined by the flute, the sound was not just a doubling, but a play with hue and value that created a new sound-color. The solos and ensemble playing of the flutes, oboes, and clarinets were a real treat. At the close of the Prometheus, the trumpets and brass, and percussion really came into their own. The passing of fragments back and forth between the horns and clarinets was simply delicious. Symphony by the Sea is not a collection of players, but an ensemble that listens to one another. We don’t often hear that kind of performance from orchestras.
Given Palma’s consideration of detail, it is not surprising that the program was also carefully constructed; one Beethoven piece prepared the way for the next. The audience kept hearing fragments and gestures that seemed familiar, but from a different piece. Palma’s selection showed Beethoven trying out ideas in one form and then another as the program advanced. This listener left the concert contemplating Beethoven’s inventiveness and willingness to try things out first this way and then that.
Oh, by the way, the next concert is on January 23rd, 2010 in the same place (across from the Salem train station). See you there.