The Longwood Symphony Orchestra celebrated two milestones on Saturday at New Jordan Hall: its 30th anniversary and the inaugural concert of its new music director, Ronald Feldman. This year marks as well the centenary of composer John Cage (1912-1992), the 60th anniversary of his controversial work 4’33”, and the 60th birthday of composer Robert Kyr. The diverse program showcased the orchestra’s and Feldman’s versatility and featured the rising young pianist Louis Schwizgebel.
After decades of concertgoing, I was pleased to experience at last John Cage’s 4’33”, surely the composer’s most famous — or infamous — work: scored for any instrument or combination of instruments and player(s), it consists of four minutes and thirty-three seconds of playing nothing. Cage’s point, of course, is that genuine silence is vanishingly rare; there is virtually constant ambient noise, and this is the fabric of 4’33”. Therefore, every performance of the piece is unique and irreproducible and can vary for individual members of the same audience. I heard, among other things, chair creaks, program-rustling, sniffles, sneezes, and a neighbor’s borborygmy. The crux of the controversy is: does this constitute music? Cage certainly thought so, but audiences have remained philosophically divided on the question. And 4’33” did seem to create a quandary of audience etiquette: should one applaud players who have just played nothing? Though Feldman gave a clear final cutoff and bade the orchestra to stand—for some time–to acknowledge applause, it was not forthcoming until the conductor began to exit the stage. However one feels about the piece itself, it seems healthy to challenge concertgoers to reflect on how they define the term “music”, and I salute Feldman for his courage in opening his first concert as LSO music director with 4’33”.
Robert Kyr, an American composer born the same year 4’33” was conceived, was inspired to compose his Fanfare for a New Dawn after watching Oregon’s Mt. Hood “emerge out of darkness into a ‘new dawn.’” Feldman and the LSO gave a colorful account, beginning with the “mysterious shadows” preceding daybreak, growing in warmth and vigor over a long, well-paced orchestral crescendo, and reaching the summit in splendid celebration. It was a pity, though, that the full-orchestra climax was somewhat discolored by faulty intonation.
The Swiss pianist Louis Schwizgebel already has a stellar résumé at age 25, including winning the 2007 Young Concert Artists International Auditions. No doubt he could have selected a firebreathing virtuoso Romantic showpiece, but tellingly, he opted for the subtler glories of Mozart’s Concerto No. 21 in C Major, K. 467. His was a mainstream interpretation, with a good sense of style and irreproachable fingerwork. Occasionally, though, some pianistic filigree was slightly blurred by 19th-century-style pedaling; this was akin to looking at a beautiful work of art through the thinnest of scrims. The solo cadenzas of the first and last movements (whose source the program did not list) drew mostly on the themes and figures of their respective movements and showed off Schwizgebel’s virtuosity without becoming Lisztian. The orchestra and Feldman provided attentive, elegant support throughout, particularly in the sensuous slow movement, though every so often they would momentarily cover the pianist. This would seem to be easily avoidable by paring down the ensemble to chamber orchestra proportions.
The program’s second half was Serge Prokofiev’s Suite No. 2 from Romeo and Juliet, Op. 64-Ter, comprised of eight sections from the full ballet. Feldman secured a committed, moving performance from the LSO. The opening of Montagues and Capulets was arresting with its two crescendi to grinding triple-forte dissonances, followed by the ballet’s most famous theme. Here the rasp of the angry low brass threatened to suppress the lowest parts of the string roulades but stopped just short, an evocative picture of interfamilial strife. The Child Juliet’s outer sections gave us a vivid depiction of a young girl, skittery and playful; the calmer central episode caressed but also fell victim to some imperfect tuning. Friar Laurence made a strong contrast to the preceding with the dark warmth of its distinctive orchestration, especially some rich writing for the lower strings. Romeo and Juliet Before Parting was notable for its many fine solos from the flute, clarinet, oboe, tenor saxophone, and viola. Feldman also obtained some enchanting gossamer string playing. The melancholy but not tragic ending of this section well reflected the protagonists’ unawareness that they were seeing each other alive for the last time. The highly dramatic dénouement of the ballet, Romeo at the Grave of Juliet, was a searing cri de coeur of grief. The LSO maintained good blend and balance at the full-orchestra outcry, through the long, nuanced diminuendo, and in the final quiet, numb conclusion. After Feldman’s final release the audience remained at least as quiet as in 4’33” for some moments before awarding the performers a hearty ovation.
A few words about the program booklet, if I may. The orchestra musicians (string players aside) participate in sectional rotation and are listed in alphabetical order. The LSO might consider, therefore, using asterisks and other symbols to indicate who the principals were (i.e., who played solos) on the respective pieces so that they can be appreciated by name. And kudos to the absolutely superb program notes by Steven Ledbetter, always interesting, informative, and thought-provoking.
I am optimistic that Feldman and the LSO, with imaginative programming and their professional level of playing, will go on performing to full halls and thus continue their altruistic mission of supporting other health-related nonprofit organizations in Greater Boston. Though there are areas where the new music director will doubtless work to raise the standard still higher, this program was an auspicious beginning to the partnership of Ronald Feldman and the Longwood Symphony Orchestra.