in: Reviews

March 14, 2010

Happy Decision, Odessa Philharmonic Concert in Worcester

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It wasn’t for the originality of the program that I was drawn to the performance by the Odessa Philharmonic presented by Music Worcester in Mechanics Hall, on March 12, for, in truth, that was about as cut-and-dried as a classical program can be:  Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony, Saint-Saens’s Cello Concerto #1, and the Beethoven Seventh. But I had met the conductor Hobart Earle at Tanglewood in 1987 and had never been to a concert that he led, since even then he spent the major part of his career in Vienna, and for the last 17 years has been Music Director in Odessa. Soon after his time at Tanglewood, Earle had conducted in Vienna two works for string orchestra by George W. Chadwick and Henry F. Gilbert, Boston composers of the romantic era whom I had presented in a lecture to the conductors there (his performance was recorded and is still available on CD).  Recently I had learned that his performance of the Chadwick Serenade in F was almost certainly the world premiere of the piece, and I thought he might be amused to learn that.

The New Yorker critic Alex Ross recently gave a speech in London (reported in the Guardian here,  in which he attacked the odd “rule” forbidding applause between movements, which so often dampens legitimate enthusiasm on the audience’s part. In the course of this talk he mentioned “the aggressive affectlessness of many professional musicians” (a terrific phrase, and so appropriate!) as one of the issues facing modern-day classical performance—a performing style evidently designed to suggest that the player has no personal involvement but is rather an automaton out of whose motions the music simply emerges.

Happily, the players of the Odessa Philharmonic are not at all of that ilk. Encouraged by the generally enthusiastic and forceful gestures of the conductor, they respond vividly and with evident commitment.

The program began promisingly with an “Unfinished” Symphony shaped with careful attention to the details of dynamics and accents that bring life to Schubert’s beautiful but thrice-familiar piece. A conductor who insists that pianos be really piano and fortes really forte is always welcome, especially when the orchestra follows him with such immediacy.

William DeRosa was the soloist in the Saint-Saëns Cello Concerto #1, giving a reading that was splendidly virtuosic in the fast triplet runs and warmly expressive in the singing passages. Solo cellists in concerto repertory often have to struggle to be heard over the orchestra, even in the quite lucid scoring of Saint-Saëns, so it was a surprise to notice that the low riser on which the soloist was seated for the performance was carpeted. This had the effect necessarily of muffling the cellist’s sound somewhat, though DeRosa projected clearly in spite of what seemed like a disadvantage.

The real highlight of the program was the performance of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, a work of enormous rhythmic drive and of such oft-repeated rhythmic patterns that composer John Adams has cheerfully called it Beethoven’s minimalist symphony. But it is also ferociously difficult to maintain the energy required from beginning to end, whether in the explosive loud sections or the more delicate soft sections that require control of the instruments only milliseconds after they have been called upon to play full out. Despite these challenges, the Odessa players dug into the music with such evident conviction, passion, and strength that I frankly cannot remember ever having heard a more fully satisfying representation of the score:  tight ensemble, superbly observed dynamics, non-stop energy, and the kind of leaning-forward engagement that transmits the excitement to everyone in the hall.

As the Beethoven came to an end, I couldn’t help thinking that Beethoven treats his players rather as Stravinsky treated the “chosen one” in The Rite of Spring—a maiden chosen to dance herself to death. The Beethoven finale threw off the kind of energy as to suggest that the players were really making a life-and-death case for it.

As the conductor left the stage following the first round of enthusiastic applause, it appeared, oddly, as if the string players were going to follow him off. But it turned out that violas and cellos merely switched places for the encore, an ingratiating performance of the Artist’s Life waltzes of Johann Strauss the younger. Hobart Earle’s years in Vienna certainly make him a superb Strauss conductor, one who knows that the waltzes are not to be played as written, but with all kinds of adjustments of tempo that one absorbs fully in the city for which this music was first created. Few American conductors do Strauss so stylishly, and Earle has inculcated the tradition in his Odessa players, too. He told me later that they do a traditional New Year’s concert featuring the work of Strauss, which they play with admirable grace and charm. For a second encore, he closed with the Radetzky March by Papa Johann Strauss, encouraging the audience to clap along during the loud parts of the main theme, as seems to be traditional in Vienna.

All in all, a surprising evening, one of the most satisfying orchestral performances of the season.

Steven Ledbetter is a free-lance writer and lecturer on music. He got his BA from Pomona College and PhD from NYU in Musicology. He taught at Dartmouth College in the 1970s, then became program annotator at the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1979 to 1997.

7 Comments

  1. Odessa players dug into the music with such evident conviction, passion, and strength that I frankly cannot remember ever having heard a more fully satisfying representation of the score: tight ensemble, superbly observed dynamics, non-stop energy, and the kind of leaning-forward engagement that transmits the excitement to everyone in the hall.

    That is my unfortunately-typical common fate: a rare worthy concert that I miss turns out to be a good one! My grandma told me that it is a Jewish Luck but I think it is Murphy’s Law in action. What I wonder: is the Mr. Ledbetter’s admiration of the Odessa Philharmonic’s play was just a tribute to the BMI’s distinctively-toothless critique practice or the Odessits truly demonstrated something truly interesting and original? It is hard to speculate…. The very same nice “compliance language” is being used by BMI writers to describe BSO’s weekly descent into the realms of artistic impotence and musical indifference. I wonder what soon will be considering a “good performance” for Boston? Yes, we are in Boston are suffering from the diluting of criteria. With all our Yankee- pomposity if to look at the thinks soberly then in terms of quality of performing musicianship we are in back burners of the nation. We are in VERY disadvantaging position in respect to many European cities. At the day when Steven Ledbetter attended reportedly-good play from a fifth-world provincial orchestra usually playing in one of the worst concert halls in the world, the celebrated BSO in the celebrated Symphony Hall play Rimsky at the level that might be considered as a fireable offence to music. I wonder when the educated BMI’s writers begin to address THIS subject.

    Comment by Romy The Cat — March 14, 2010 at 9:56 pm

  2. What a town! Three performances of the Beethoven Seventh in three weeks by three different (apparently *very* different) orchestras. I heard only the BSO’s but from that evidence alone I’d have to take issue with Mr. Bessnow’s unkind evaluation above. Regarding their Rimsky on Saturday, I’d have to blame de Burgos for some impossibly slow tempi and a general lack of rhythmic propulsion. Malcolm Lowe’s solos though were terrific!

    Comment by clark johnsen — March 14, 2010 at 10:24 pm

  3. The greater part of the Seventh’s first movement employing a Siciliano rhythm as it does, you could conceivably take it as a rather fast (Vivace) lullaby. Discuss.

    Comment by Richard Buell — March 15, 2010 at 2:57 pm

  4. Writing clear English can be so wicked difficult. By “take it” above, I meant “think of it” rather than “perform it.”

    Comment by Richard Buell — March 15, 2010 at 3:30 pm

  5. I think of a Siciliano as involving a tempo as well as a rhythm, and the tempo of Beethoven’s first movement seems much too fast for me to call it a Siciliano. Indeed, the word had never occurred to me in conjunction with this piece until you used it here. There is certainly a sense of the physicality of dance, but I guess I’d consider it more a tarantella, if I had to put a name to it, than a siciliano.

    Comment by Steven Ledbetter — March 16, 2010 at 9:24 am

  6. This particular flash of pseudo-insight on my part came to me when … probably the radio was on, I was experiencing my first caffeine jolt of the day, and all sorts of things seemed possible. I hadn’t seriously thought of it as a Siciliano either. What did hit me, though, was how completely transformative tempo can be. Arithmetically — that is, as to notated rhythm — the two might be similar but in every other way, the physicality in particular, they exist in different universes. I think we agree! Now could one think of a lullaby as a sort of a slow tarantella? Possibly, but — again it’s what tempo does — the difference is essentially the same. We might just have the makings of a parlor game here.

    Comment by Richard Buell — March 16, 2010 at 10:58 am

  7. Interesting–I had never thought of that movement as either of those dances, but have sometimes thought of it as a kind of jig. When Wagner called B7 “the apotheosis of the dance,” I assume he had the first movement in mind, maybe the third; the second’s a march (and, yes, my high school graduation processed to it)–I can’t imagine what dance you’d do to the last movement, unless you were the virgin in Rite of Spring.

    Comment by Vance R. Koven — March 16, 2010 at 11:29 am

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