Music Director Federico Cortese raised the bar for performers and audiences alike with the Spring Concert of the Harvard Radcliffe Orchestra on April 27th at Sanders Theatre. Sandwiched between two staples of early Romantic repertoire, he positioned a gnarly new work by Harvard faculty member Chaya Czernowin; he also provided the occasion for the farewell performance (qua faculty member) by retiring Harvard musicologist Robert Levin. We phrase it thus since, as Harvard still officially relegates the practice, as opposed to the preaching, of music to the status of a hobby, the fact that Levin is a world-renowned soloist counts in the eyes of his soon-to-be-former employer mostly as fodder for press releases.
After the ritual acknowledgment of the orchestra’s graduating seniors (avete atque valete!), the program opened with the Symphony in D minor, op. 107, by Felix Mendelssohn, known as the Reformation Symphony from its origins as a commission to commemorate the adoption 300 years earlier of the Augsburg Confession, a pivotal document in German Lutheranism (we all know that Mendelssohn was a baptized and practicing Lutheran, right?). One thing and another, the intended performance fell through, and Mendelssohn eventually withdrew the work—it had been criticized as “too learned” and he had too many other things on his plate to bother with it. It wasn’t published until 21 years after his death, and so came to be called his Symphony No. 5, though of his symphonies for full orchestra it was the second composed (an endemic problem with him: the chronological order of Mendelssohn’s symphonies is 1, 5, 4, 2, 3).
Be all this as it may—and we rehash the history only because our informal survey of audience members suggested that these facts are not universally known even by seasoned concert-goers—the Reformation Symphony deserves serious, thoughtful attention as one of Mendelssohn’s most powerful and subtle works. It is a kind of historico-psychological study of the Reformation, with outer movements focused on its public and historic significance and inner movements tracing more personal responses, from peasant rambunctiousness to individual and communal piety. The best performances of this work dig deep. The finale, a brilliant synthesis of chorale prelude and sonata form, based largely on Martin Luther’s “Ein’ Feste Burg ist unser Gott” (A Mighty Fortress Is Our God), a tune that was most famously harmonized by J.S. Bach, potently argues the Protestant case for personal faith triumphant over institutional and historic tradition. In view of Mendelssohn’s personal and family history, this theme can be seen to transcend the usual Catholic-Protestant dialectic.
We could not detect much of this depth in Cortese’s rushed and event-driven reading, alas. After the warm sonorities of the lower strings in the first movement’s slow introduction (Mendelssohn cleverly reserves the violins for several iterations of the Dresden Amen, a phrase widely used in both Catholic and Protestant worship), the rest of the movement proceeded with propulsive haste and without much in the way of carefully shaped phrasing and dynamics. The scherzo struck us as breezily celebratory rather than earthy and bumptious, though the contrasting trio, though taken too fast, was charming. The slow movement suffered most from the lack of depth, despite some excellently expressive playing by the winds and strings. The chorale tune, which serves as transition from the slow movement and introduction to the finale, was also well played but not mined for its rising power and grandeur. The finale proper was mostly a headlong rush, bristling with contrapuntal activity (well executed string passagework!) but without the necessary architectonic gravitas that can make the ending a truly uplifting experience. Points off for missed opportunities.
The literally pivotal position in the program was occupied by Czernowin’s Zohar Iver (Hebrew for “Blind Radiance”) for large orchestra and a “concertino” consisting of the Israeli-based group Ensemble Nikel, comprising Patrick Stadler on baritone and soprano saxophones, Yaron Deutsch, electric guitar, Reto Staub, piano, and Tom de Cock, percussion. In sound, this piece is easy enough to describe. The orchestral part, by and large, is devoted to percussive effects for the strings and other short, sharp shocks from winds, brass and orchestral percussion (actually, the percussion was often rather soft and round), building from near silence to a moderately loud climax before rapidly falling back. The music here was largely Klangfarbenmelodie—all kinds of sounds except actual, you know, notes. The concertino ranged from isolated bursts to short threads of melody. The piano was virtually inaudible throughout, but was amply compensated by the frenetically active pitched and unpitched percussion. The saxes and guitar often played off one another to create extended timbral transitions from acoustic to electronic—a neat effect, if not exactly original. The work, it seemed, was following a definite structural logic, if not an especially elaborate one. This being a new piece, with few if any references to conventional rhythmic and harmonic procedures, it is impossible to say whether the performance was as good as it should have been, but from appearance it seems that Cortese and the HRO musicians were in command of their materials; there were certainly no obvious train wrecks in ensemble. The Nikel folks did what they did with assurance and aplomb—and de Cock had much to crow about in his nimble traversal of his instrumental battery.
Czernowin, an Israeli active mostly in Europe but whose teaching career has mostly been in the US, joined the Harvard faculty in 2009. Her teachers included the British avant-gardist Brian Ferneyhough, and she acknowledges the influence of Giacinto Scelsi and Helmut Lachenmann, two avatars of European hard-core modernism. The idiom of Zohar Iver has some resemblance to spectralism, with its focus on the quality of sound rather than linear process, but its sonic range is considerably more limited to the jagged bits. BMInt’s concert preview, available here, focused largely on her discussion of this piece; her remarks were not calculated to put a potential audience member at ease (ritual nod to Ives on perfumed cushions for the ears and all that). More to the point, one would be forgiven for wondering whether the high-modernist pose in opposition to the audience wasn’t by now rather passé, even derrière-garde. However, we imagine that there was much to be gained by the performers in doing works like this, which many, if not most, will never again get a chance to do.
After this brief tour to Darmstadt and IRCAM, it was back to the familiar, with Levin on stage for the only piano concerto of Mendelssohn’s close friend and quirkier musical sibling, Robert Schumann. The Piano Concerto in A minor, op. 54 is, in many respects, the prototype of the Romantic piano concerto, more so than the further-out-there efforts of Liszt and Alkan. From Schumann’s one can draw a direct line to concerti of Brahms (of course) and Grieg, and thence to Tchaikovsky’s and Rachmaninoff’s. Despite coming at the peak of Schumann’s mature prowess, written in 1845 after his phenomenal growth in chamber music, this concerto restores the characteristic Florestan vs. Eusebius opposition of impulsiveness and introspection that informed his early piano solo works. Levin was all over this, with his fiery introduction yielding to a dreamy opening subject, and generally playing with these dichotomies throughout the three movements. Schumann’s orchestral accompaniments, while not as drab and deferential as many galant style concertos of the period, Mendelssohn’s and Chopin’s included, was not yet as fully integrated as Brahms and later composers were to make of them. Cortese led the HRO players with discretion, letting the dogs have a good run-out when possible but (sorry for the mixed metaphor) leaving most of the heavy lifting to Levin. The central Intermezzo, neither true slow movement nor true scherzo, was elfin and playful, with Cortese nicely shaping the phrasing, especially in the transitional passage to the attached finale. The finale was the peak of the performance, with successful interplay between solo and orchestra, each completing the other’s thoughts.
After a tumultuous reception for this performance, featuring a lively response from the performer including a jumping-jack limbs-spread tableau, Levin returned for an encore, this the slow movement from Mozart’s Sonata in C major, K. 330, to which, in keeping with his by now famous wont, he improvised some fully characteristic embellishments.