All of Nietzsche’s good uses of history “for life” came in handy Saturday night as the latest incarnation of the venerable Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra gathered in Sanders Theater to provide special groundedness to Robert Levin’s farewell concert as a Harvard faculty member (Monumental History) and to Chaya Chernowin’s bold trek into new regions of quantum entanglement (Critical History). Music, however, has the distinctive feature that it exists only in the eternal here and now—time vanishes as soon as the first note is sounded. So: how did it sound?
The program started with Mendelssohn’s Reformation Symphony (1830), a work that seems to seek the unity and simplification of sola scriptura worship. Federico Cortese led a large-scale reading of the work, the opening Andante was beautifully played in the strings, especially the cellos. The ensuing Allegro con fuoco was stormy and forceful, with subtle contrasts as well, particularly the lyrical passages in the winds. The second movement, Allegro vivace, had a Beethovenian pastoral feel, lively and dance-like with soft timpani accents. The slow Andante followed, full of sadness, a separation rite that put the past to rest by acknowledging all in us that cannot be Reformed and remains tied to archaic longing. The Chorale finale then felt like a forward-looking new dawn, built of a unified resolve. The Finale is particularly difficult to pull off, and Cortese held the orchestra together skillfully through to the massive final chords, played effectively by avoiding dramatic overstatement.
Some people hear music visually, for instance experiencing Schoenberg as great blocks of shape like the art of Richard Serra or Robert Motherwell. Chaya Czernowin wants to make this synesthetic experience available to all, intentionally evoking a tactile event in her work Zohar Iver, “Blind Radiance.” The HRO was joined by the Ensemble Nikel, a quartet of saxophone, electric guitar, percussion and piano, which acted as a contrasting instrumental group in the performance. The piece was fascinating: coherent and well-unified, evoking the urge to explore a “language of unknowing,” with moments of futurism, appealing to an unused portion of the acoustic cortex and its response to unexpectedness and consequent concept formation.
The concert culminated with Robert Levin’s sensitive, lyrical and deeply-felt reading of the Schumann Piano Concerto. The Schumann works well as a journey of personal achievement and then farewell, from a piano that dominates the orchestra at the outset, to a gradual coming together in the development, and concluding with a mutual understanding in the double cadenza—first in the piano, then joined by the orchestra—at the end of the first movement. The Intermezzo was played as a thoughtful, reflective dialogue, leading to the wonderful shift from minor to major and an outburst of springtime joy in the Allegro vivace finale that led to a receding of the piano into the background, with a touching goodbye theme in the final coda. It is clear that Levin knows this work from the inside, and the orchestra, swept along, played with conviction and appreciation. The playing was lively, subtle, powerfully understated, the essence of Romanticism.
Responding to an enthusiastic and emotional ovation, Levin gave us a delicate and knowing reading of the Andante Cantabile from Mozart’s K. 330 piano sonata. It was a perfect departure.