in: Reviews

March 12, 2011

Too Much Reverberation for Sibelius and Adams

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The so-called Longy Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Julian Pellicano of the faculty, presented a thoughtful and well integrated program at the First Church in Cambridge, on Friday, March 11, 2011 — “so-called” chamber orchestra, because it numbered forty-five strings (11-10-9-10-5). The program included two works by Jean Sibelius and one by the Worcester-born, former Harvard student (1965-1972), John Adams.

Sibelius’s Valse triste is scored for flute, clarinet (in A), 2 horns, timpani (in D), and strings. He wrote it originally in 1903 as incidental music for his brother-in-law’s play, Kuoloma (Death), to depict a dream in which Death appears to a sleeping woman as a dance partner. The piece was revised and separately published in 1904 as op. 44, no. 1. Since then it has become a staple of the orchestral repertoire, with its familiar, haunting theme that makes poignant use of the descending half-step, usually to a note outside the scale of the G-major key. Indeed, the contrabasses begin by persistently reiterating a  G-sharp, which turns out to be the third of a chord in E major. The work ends resolutely in g minor, signifying the victim’s death. Pellicano has had a lot of experience leading student orchestras, particularly at Yale University, and conveys and gets what he wants from them with precision and enthusiasm. He created deliberate tentativeness in the opening and brief moments of near silence between the various sections of the waltz, thus heightening the dramatic effect of impending doom in the midst of seeming lush gaiety. The performance was stunningly expressive.

For John Adams’s The Wound Dresser (1988), first performed in February 1989 by the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, with baritone Sanford Sylvan, and the composer conducting, the winds grew into two flutes, two oboes, clarinet, bass clarinet, two bassoons, two horns, and trumpet — plus the same timpani and strings, with the sonically notable addition of a synthesizer — specifically, according to Adams’s publisher’s Website, the Kurzweil K2000, which came on the market in 1991. Adams is quite specific in his directions that the synthesizer “should not be amplified through [the] main loudspeaker system. The sampler sound is to be amplified through the recommended keyboard combination amplifier and should seem acoustic within the context of the orchestra — this is important.” I also learned from one of the orchestra members afterwards that Longy had a difficult time locating this particular synthesizer, now superseded by later models.

Orchestral concerts, particularly ones of this size, are rarely given at the First Church in Cambridge. Given its legendary reverberation, far more care should have been taken to balance the orchestral and synthesizer sounds, which became loud and muddy, with each other and with baritone Tom Meglioranza’s clear voice and perfect diction, much of which was nearly inaudible (from a perfect seat in the center of the front row in the balcony). Adams set most of Walt Whitman’s grim poem (from Leaves of Grass,  1891), which, beginning with the second half of the second verse, reflects on the poet’s experiences as a nurse during the Civil War. Adams’s setting has been described as a “musical depiction of graphic violence co-existing with disembodied spiritual transcendence.” Meglioranza sang with the quiet but raw intense passion and tenderness of this transcendence, while the orchestra wound along in undulant phrases with ominous roiling dissonance to echo the graphic violence. Except for the balance issue, Pellicano’s conducting was also impassioned, and confident. The students played with enthusiasm and gave both Meglioranza and Pellicano foot-stomping approval at the end.

Sibelius’s Second Symphony also suffered from the reverberations of this space. It is a long work, about forty-five minutes, for a still larger orchestra: two each, flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons; four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, and tuba; plus timpani and strings. Full disclosure: my appreciation of this work is based on a magical performance by a young, pre-conservatory, student orchestra, in a nearly underground church in Helsinki in 1993 that was simply shimmering. In Cambridge, 2011, the excellent program notes by Longy’s Erik Entwistle, delineated all we should hear in all four movements, but that was not always easy. In spite of the dynamic markings in the score, there was not enough dynamic gradation or contrast except in a very few places. Mostly the four movements were just loud. Once again, this was surely a problem with the space rather than the conducting, although the phenomenon should have been anticipated. There were a few intonation problems, for example the final chord at the end of the second movement, in the flutes. Even so, the students really leaned into it with bodily enthusiasm, and this time their foot-stomping at the end was echoed by the audience — until they stood in ovation.

Mary Wallace Davidson has directed the music libraries at Radcliffe, Wellesley, Eastman School of Music, and Indiana University. She now lives in the Boston area.

2 Comments

  1. I agree with Ms. Davidson that the space is awkward, but given the limitations of what is available both fiscally and pragmatically to Longy’s orchestra, I was happier to hear the Sibelius symphony at First Church than in Pickman Hall. I sat down below on the right side, and heard far more dynamic nuance, but agree that the space was problematic for The Wound Dresser. I felt the Church was a great boon to the brass sound in the Sibelius, a sound that would have been very different (and in my opinion, less desirable) in Pickman.

    Comment by Rebecca — March 14, 2011 at 6:47 am

  2. All too true, the space was not right for this piece. For myself and those around me it made listening to this concert uncomfortable, to say the least. Too bad, as I always love to hear music from the Nordic composers.

    Comment by christopher — March 14, 2011 at 1:35 pm

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