in: Reviews

May 19, 2010

Cambridge Symphony Caps 35th Season with Bielawa, Saint-Saëns, Berlioz

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Founded 35 years ago as the Little Orchestra of Cambridge, what is now called the Cambridge Symphony Orchestra concluded the regular concerts of its season on May 16 at the Greater Boston Vineyard Church in North Cambridge. Co-founder and current President Rachel Spiller was on hand to give and receive plaudits on this milestone. Music Director Cynthia Woods conducted a program that featured the première of a commissioned work by Lisa Bielawa, the Saint-Saëns first cello concerto with soloist Rafael Popper-Keizer, and the Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique.

The venue, new to us, is a decommissioned Roman Catholic church of French or French-Canadian roots — the stained-glass windows bore French titles — that is now used by a congregation that, according to its literature, has among its missions a commitment to the arts. To this end, among others, the interior has softened many of the hard surfaces: there are wall-to-wall carpeting, pews replaced with cushioned chairs, and an array of sound reflectors hanging from the stuccoed ceiling that are reminiscent of the devices at New York’s Avery Fisher (né Philharmonic) Hall that were dubbed “clouds.” (Remember Peter Schickele’s quip, “It’s a beautiful night for a concert, there’s not a cloud in the ceiling”?) With all this attention paid to acoustics, one would anticipate a bright, forward sound, eliminating the cavernous long decays and sonic muddle one experiences in other large church spaces. One would be partially correct and partially not: the reverb is gone, all right, but so is any hint of brightness—in fact, projection is a serious problem and upper partials can turn anemic.

The program opened with Emerald Waltz by Lisa Bielawa, a rising star who is now off at the American Academy in Rome, enjoying the fruits of her Rome Prize. The stone of the title is the anniversary stone for 35 years, signaling the specificity of this self-styled occasional work. It begins with a rush of what the composer called aleatoric but what sounded to us like dense Ligeti-esque chromatic polyphony, settling into a jazzy, user-friendly waltz idiom that occasionally stumbles over a leftover 5/4 bar. It’s all over before you know it, a better sensation, one supposes, than its opposite, but the materials seemed sturdy enough to benefit from more extended treatment. Ms. Woods conducts with nice big beats; her background in community and youth orchestras stands her in good stead.

The solo turn for this concert was Rafael Popper-Keizer in Saint-Saëns’s Cello Concerto No. 1 in A minor, op. 33. The two Saint-Saëns concertos (No. 2 is far less known) are not performed as often as others by the Romantic masters, and the First’s fate, though hardly an unknown work, is especially puzzling, as it was highly regarded by the composer’s contemporaries and in the succeeding generation. Perhaps the problem (more for soloists than audiences, we suspect) is that it doesn’t have much in the way of big-bow wow moments — no flashy cadenzas and not a lot of bravura passagework, although there are some obviously tricky runs of harmonics. It is therefore welcome to have Popper-Keizer, a well-known figure on the local scene as orchestral and chamber musician, take this on. He cannot, however, keep a poker face: when something has gone quite to his satisfaction, he shines a big smile, and when the untoward happens, which it did once or twice, we sense his puzzlement. Quite charming and human, in its way.

It is hard to think of Saint-Saëns as a musical radical, but he structured this concerto in some ways on the precedent of Liszt’s piano concertos, as a single unit with subsections corresponding to conventional movements, all played without pause but with clear bridges. The content, however, is pure Saint-Saëns: melodic, pellucid, concise, unfussy, and scored with a transparency as close as the Romantics got to Haydn and Mozart, though amply endowed with drama and narrative force. It’s really remarkable how these characteristics remained constant throughout Saint-Saëns’s long career. We won’t describe the music—it is in many respects archetypal, and in any case you can hear and even download it here as a recording or here as sheet music. Popper-Keizer adopted an appropriately forward tone in the first movement, but alas, the room acoustic worked against him like a headwind: the sounds reaching the ear, only four rows back, did not match the intensity of the sights reaching the eye. Woods kept her forces, somewhat reduced in keeping with the light scoring, together, with only the slow movement’s delicate opening to remind us that the CSO is a no-audition all-comers community ensemble.

The program concluded with Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, one of the great musical warhorses and a favorite crowd-pleaser. About the music, again, we need say nothing. For this brilliantly scored work, the CSO rose to its full complement; therein lay the trouble. As we said earlier, Ms. Woods is adept at giving clear signals, and she was largely successful in keeping her ducks in a row, everyone in line and moving forward. We noted with pleasure some fine wind and brass playing, with kudos to clarinets, flutes, bassoons and low brass. Sometimes, with community orchestras, especially ones as civic-minded as CSO, one has to choose between that commitment and quality of product. So, while the Berlioz performance was not geared to the cognoscenti, the concert at least made up in considerable degree with some intelligent out-of-the-ordinary programming; that’s worth praise in and of itself.

Vance R. Koven studied music at Queens College and New England Conservatory, and law at Harvard. A composer and practicing attorney, he was for many years the chairman of Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble.

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