As the calendar flipped to the final full month of winter, a receptive and apparently healthy audience (nary an inter-movement splutter or cough!) was treated to both the mild zephyrs of summer and the biting depths of winter in a concert offered by the Atlantic Symphony Orchestra showcasing works of Beethoven and Brahms in the cozy-yet-capacious confines of New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall.
The Atlantic who? Are you familiar with the ASO? Odds are, like this chagrined reviewer, this group had not previously registered on your radar. High time for enlightenment! Actually tracing their roots back to the 1940s, this formidable South Shore-based musical organism produces top-drawer classical music. After more than half a century of evolution and expansion, the former Hingham Symphony Orchestra broadened both its horizons and name in 2006, when it was rechristened the Atlantic Symphony Orchestra. This talented ensemble more than lives up to its oversize appellation.
Last evening’s “Masterworks Gala” focused on two Teutonic titans, Beethoven and Brahms, as the ASO explored the underappreciated Symphony No. 4 in B-flat Major, Opus 60 of the former and the initially despised Piano Concerto No. 1 in D Minor, Opus 15 of the latter.
Of Beethoven’s nine completed symphonies, the fourth is, sadly, his least-known and least-performed. Wedged as it is between the monumental Eroica and the iconic Fifth, the consistently pleasing and straightforward No. 4 tends to be overshadowed by those pillars of Western classical music. While working on Symphony No. 5 (which at that point still would have been No. 4), Beethoven received a lucrative commission for a creation along the lines of his Second. He eagerly complied, poaching and transmogrifying bits and bobs of the thematic material destined for his current work and crafting Symphony No. 4 within the impressively short span of approximately one month in late summer 1806.
Following a cloud-shrouded introduction, laced with the occasional forked flash of dissonance, crepuscular rays of musical sunlight burst forth. The ASO, under the capable baton of conductor Jin Kim, presented a buoyant, high-caliber rendition that swooped and soared. Kim, who has helmed the ASO for 16 seasons and just recently was appointed the first Music Director of Harvard Musical Association’s Sight Reading Orchestra (gathered in 1941), has worn an impressive number of musical hats, having performed professionally as pianist, singer, and conductor. His conducting style is precise and highly charged, with this precision being reflected in the performance of his talented charges. Captain Kim runs a tight ship, and the Good Ship ASO plied the high seas (including any and all high Cs) with verve and alacrity. From my vantage point in the second row, it was interesting to catch the occasional glimpse of the maestro’s expressive, sweat-drenched countenance, bearing expressions ranging from radiantly smiling to sternly glowering, with a far greater emphasis on the former. His head-wagging passion was contagious, exuding a palpable musicality. The highly pedigreed and accomplished orchestra members were unfailingly focused and responsive, with the string section featuring preternatural coherence from the opening note. The more exposed second movement was admittedly a tad ragged at times, with one of the horns sounding as if a gerbil had curled up in its bell, but the members rallied as they plunged in to the final two movements. They were firing on all cylinders during the busy, crackling final Allegro, one of the most amusing movements ever to sprout from the quill of Beethoven. After an extended period of continual churning motion, the string section enjoys an unexpectedly languid ‘breather,’ immediately followed by a headlong scamper to the finish. It was full-on sky-blue July by intermission.
Brahms’s first piano concerto wrenched us back into the deep, rich cobalts of midwinter. Conceived and realized over a period of several years when the composer was in his early 20s, this astonishingly mature work utilizes the solo instrument in an intellectually challenging manner that far transcends the virtuosic showpieces of the day. During this period, Brahms’s mentor, Robert Schumann, attempted suicide and eventually died prematurely. These devastating events reverberate in the passionate music. Upsettingly, early performances of the work were universally reviled by critics and audiences alike, this revulsion actually taking the form of loud hissing during the concerto’s debut in Leipzig!
Fortunately, humanity’s musical evolution eventually caught up with the composer. Tonight’s soloist, Hung-Kuan Chen—born in Taiwan, raised in Germany, now professor of piano at both Yale and NEC—presented an assured, precise rendition replete with clarity and simmering with controlled fervor. Chen’s unfailingly accurate performance becomes all the more impressive and inspirational after learning that he suffered for over five years in the 1990s with a debilitating condition known as focal dystonia, the same affliction that sidelined fellow pianist Leon Fleisher for the better part of three decades. Fleisher eventually found relief through Botox injections; Chen focused on Qigong energy meditation to get him back on the piano bench.
Chen’s interpretation could have benefited from a bit more in the way of rounded, shapely phrasing, perhaps a touch more damper pedal, and maybe a dash more dynamic variation (the occasional pellucid pianissimo, perhaps), but, all told, this was stirring and powerful music-making by both soloist and orchestra. The only minor instrumental quibbles concerned woodwinds that stood out a bit much early in the first movement and horns that were a tad tentative at times. Fortunately, these very minor transgressions did extremely little to detract from the overwhelmingly polished performance.
The evening’s unabashed passionfest yielded a response in kind with an immediate, sustained, and equally passionate standing-O. If Orchestral Performance were an Olympic event, the Atlantic Symphony Orchestra would be contending for the gold!