On October 14th and 15th, the Concord Orchestra, conducted by Richard Pittman, presented a concert celebrating the one –hundredth anniversary of the founding of the Louisa May Alcott Memorial Association, since 1911 responsible for the preservation of Orchard House. (I heard the second performance.) Pittman, known for his creative programming, chose an American and a Russian work composed (or revised) one hundred years ago, both of which rely heavily on familiar, colloquial musical themes. Sandwiched between, by contrast, was Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 14, in E-flat major, K. 449 (1784), with soloist David Deveau, a native of Concord and currently Artistic Director of Rockport Music, but who, I’m happy to say, is nowhere near one hundred years old.
Charles Ives’s Third Symphony (“The Camp Meeting”), composed in 1904, revised in 1911 (but not performed until 1946), seems like a natural for this orchestra, in this town so full of American history, but it is not without its difficulties. Unlike his “Concord Sonata” for piano, with movements devoted to Emerson, Hawthorne, the Alcotts, and Thoreau, the Symphony no. 3 bears no specific allusions to Concord. It builds its movements (“Old Folks Gatherin’,” “Children’s Day,” and “Communion”) from brief snatches of evangelical hymn tunes, which become recognizable near the end, where they may be conflicting with snatches of other tunes as countermelodies. After a moment of uncertain opening, the players settled in for an affectionate though sometimes uncertain expression of these tunes—“Just as I Am” more than once. The dissonances were confidently presented, and balanced. The final cadence of the second movement (“Children’s Day”) was delicate and lovely.
The Mozart piano concerto was no doubt intended as a familiar contrast in another different way—the music‘s stylistic conventions were familiar, whereas in the Ives the compositional structure of the familiar tunes was unfamiliar. A welcoming ripple ran throughout the audience, proving that the contrast was well-timed. Unfortunately tuning was a bit of a problem: during the break one of the contrabass players unexpectedly stepped down with his instrument to the piano and, bow in hand, awkwardly punched an “A,” and then resumed his playing position. That was just not enough for the remaining players, particularly the strings, to tune to; thus the piano’s entrance in measure thirteen was a bit jarring. The previous twelve measures had been a bit rocky because the strings were not playing together. There were other disturbing moments for other reasons; e.g., the second violins were not even bowing together in some phrases. Perhaps this was due to lack of rehearsal time. David Deveau was playing from a piano score, and missed a few notes, but might be forgiven because of the way he caressed Mozart’s singing phrases and his sense of gentle give and take with the orchestra members. Indeed there were many such moments of easy dialogue, shaping and communicating similar phrases with each other.
The second half of the program consisted entirely of Stravinsky’s Petrushka (1911, rev. 1946), its thirteen movements performed without pause—well over thirty minutes in Pittman’s easy, steady tempi. In any case, it seemed long, and the audience grew a bit restless. Petrushka of course is a puppet character, in the tradition of the English Punch and the French Pierrot, who suddenly comes to life. The music is an amalgam of Russian folk and liturgical music, generated with Stravinsky’s incredible ear for harmonic color and rhythm. A musical “libretto” for the scenes from the entire ballet was outlined in the program notes, intended to help the audience members keep their place. I heard a sparkling, instrumentally differentiated performance. I felt as though I had heard the piece for the first time, although without following the score, it is difficult to say why. I thought at first it was due to the smaller size of the orchestra than that of performances usually heard. To my surprise, the Concord Orchestra has the same number of winds, brasses, and percussion as the Boston Symphony Orchestra, but nineteen fewer strings (six fewer first violins). Were we really hearing the 1911 score, first performed in Paris under the direction of Pierre Monteux? Or the version he re-orchestrated for smaller orchestra in 1946? As Stravinsky’s biographer, Eric Walter White wrote (1969), “The new Petrushka is the music of the composer of 1910. . . ; the composer of 28 did not orchestrate like the man of 64, nor could the orchestrator of 64 have composed like the man of 28.” We’ll never know.