This year’s fresh Conservatory Orchestra of Longy School of Music of Bard College offered a mostly retrospective Romantic era concert at Sanders Theatre on Friday under Julian Pellicano. Violinist Anya Shemetyeva, Longy Concerto Competition winner, played the Ravel Tzigane; and Psalm 51 by Longy Composition Competition winner Daniela DeMatos received its premiere. Smetana’s Moldau (Vltava, 1874) opened the evening which closed with Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra (1943).F
The programmatic emphasis on Eastern European romanticism was resonant in some ways with Ware and van Brunt’s Ruskinian (Venetian) neo-Gothic building, where the concert was performed. Smetana’s piece premiered in 1874, just two years before the theater, dedicated in 1870, was first used for musical performances, its admirable acoustics recognized during the commencement ceremonies for which it was first designed. The memorial passageway’s white marble plaques name students and alumni who died for The Union in the American Civil War in an era that also saw nationalistic contests and political unrest in Eastern Europe. Refugees from that embattled region, welcomed here then, and later, were among those whose intelligence, artistry and skill led them to make strong contributions to the Cambridge (and wider American) scene. Bartók, who settled in New York City after fleeing Nazi Hungary in 1940 was among these. BSO maestro Koussevitzky commissioned the Concerto for Orchestra, one of Bartók’s last completed scores, at the behest of two friends who sought a respectable way for the composer to cover the expenses of his final illness. It premiered across the Charles in 1944, just before his death.
Friday night’s program began well; Smetana’s tone-poem Vltava (The Moldau) was generally pleasant to hear. The strings murmured demurely beneath twin intertwining solo flutes, nicely evoking the two confluent streams that form the piece’s eponymous river. But parts of the work were just, well, clunky, its fluid lines marred by balance, pitch, and ensemble problems. Inaccurately plucked embellishments were fuzzy, buzzy: nothing like the round, full “plop” of raindrops on the water’s surface. The delicate ‘sirens’ moonlit night’ section was enchanting, but the horns’ oom-pah’ed off-beats parodied a carousel calliope in the wedding dance; the lower strings’ sourly pitched, exposed entrances were grating. A rising tide of sound at the theme’s A’ reprise drowned out all the other parts, muddying their lines. Enjoyable as the piece was overall, its flaws nearly breached the limits of my patience with conductor Pellicano, who after all is meant to focus the players’ concentration; encourage unison playing; and balance the horizontal and vertical elements of the piece, not set them at war with each other.
Psalm 51, by pianist and composition major Daniela DeMatos, had earned Longy’s 2012 orchestral commissioning award. Its composer has won other local awards and seen performance of her works in those venues. A short, credibly constructed massive crescendo with a dolce codetta, it offered an exposition of and meditation on the Biblical King David’s state of mind and spirit after being rebuked by the prophet Nathan for his adultery with Bathsheba and connivance in the death of her husband Uriah. Given the composer’s lucidity and deft handling of tonal and atonal materials alike in her other works, I was dismayed at the orchestra’s blocky cacophony and ho-hum rendition of the final redemptive pax anime that was meant to follow. Seeing ones works into performance is no small feat these days: only, more nuance, again, and balance in the parts, it seemed to me, was wanted here.
In Ravel’s Tzigane, violin soloist Anya Shemetyeva sought, and mostly found, the Rom in Romantic. Despite a rough start, wanting tonal focus, her exuberance and technical facility were catching. She was both helped and hindered at times by the voluminous orchestra, which supported some passages quite nicely, but effaced others. Some of this is to do with the scoring. If one listens to the original setting (here, Midori and pianist R. MacDonald), for piano and violin, the thematic development and stylistic contrasts in the piece are meant to be clearer and more transparent. Adding so many more instrumental voices to the soundscape, as Ravel did later, requires their more muted participation as respectful accomplices (here, Stern with Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra). But at several points, again, the orchestra was allowed to overwhelm the soloist. Her pizicatti were so playful, her arpeggios fluid, and her mastery of the gestural, tango-like embellishments to the main themes so well-incorporated that an increased sense of onstage energy was certainly understandable. And stray bits of musical energy can easily translate into dynamic increase, or faster tempi. But again it seemed to me that the conductor was inattentive to the finer points of his job, which includes being “ears” for the group, and holding the final blend the audience will hear in mind at all times. However, Shemetyeva held her own, and then some, walking off with a smile and a toss of her head as if to say, “Well, that was fun!” And it was.
Identified as it is with Boston, and accessible as its themes and melodic manipulations are, Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, following the intermission, was probably the most strongly conceived and executed work of the evening. It also pointed up the orchestra’s parenchymal layer—its growing edge, the place where the group will need to go deeper to mature. Bartók’s organic linkage of phrases, themes, voicings and compositional forms subvents but does not subvert the work’s energy. Romanticism’s contrasts had become mannered, hackneyed and cartoonish by Bartók’s time. His bold, quarreling pentatonics, and sure handling of texture and phrasing, transformed the heavy-handed sarcasm that socialism imparted to the folkloric side of the Romantic project into something more muscular and malleable. His fleet melismatic diminutions gave ductility and life to the wiry tittering that by then passed for romantic flair. A four-dimensional matrix of ideas, sounds, rhythms and puckish bits of narrative line moves his music-wrapped thought through time and space. It is in the transitions and juxtapositions that such movement is either facilitated or ruptured. Mastery of these makes the performative difference in the Concerto; it was here that the piece wanted more maturity and nuance.
Pitch and balance continued to offer challenges, particularly in the 3rd and 5th sections’ exposed entrances. But the group overcame its difficulties, pulled together and annealed most convincingly into a working whole. The section 2 chorale was pleasantly sêche, not overdone. The rest of the section was light-hearted; its short, bouncy phrases contrasting with longer, leaner ones. Whimsy wants an edge to be heard, though, and Giuoco (or, in the original, Presentation) della coppie wanted for just a bit more characterization in the various instrumental pairs (I saw mismatched Jack-Sprat-like couples being presented at a ball, like Spy’s Pickwickian partners, caricatured in Vanity Fair…a lighthearted trip through the gallery of Lovers and Love.) Soli and due passages in that and other sections showed up highly talented players. I have never heard such a joyful, resonant piccolo, whose fully rounded tones were pure pleasure to listen to; the drum’s soft tattoo was enchanting in its restraint and purity.
Some of my reservations about what sometimes seemed a ham-fisted approach to the podium’s duties could simply have been the first installation of a work-in-progress. The orchestra’s strengths and pleasures still outweighed its more tentative moments. Its faults perhaps stemmed from the demands of an early season concert in an academic setting where student players might just still be getting acquainted, personally and professionally, within the culture that is Longy—itself still in the throes of several shifts and changes of personnel and organizational structures. (Long an independent conservatory, the school merged with Bard College this past April). Pellicano presented a newly amalgamated group of players early in their performance year. More experienced senior students, graduated out of sight, have been supplanted by fall’s new admissions. And despite the flaws, together they offered evocative performances of several demanding pieces. Much potential, then, abides with this group, yet they have further to go. One hopes they will fare well together. I would see wisdom in certain alternative uses of student personnel to address the overkill problem in some sections, and to avoid overstretching players’ concentration so early in the year. Using fewer players in some sections, perhaps even splitting the band into two, might give soli parts more transparency, and newer players less material to master—and more time to work on basics, like pitch—early in the scholastic year.
The settling in of the band to its tasks, especially in the second half of the program, spoke well of its members’ nascent professionalism, in spite of, or even perhaps because of, its conductor, who after all had brought a large crew together and captained the ship to shore amidst the scholastic and aesthetic riptides of Cantabridgian culture, now overlaid with a New York state of mind.
Some additional notes and references are here.