Some guests leave dinner parties without saying goodbye, whereas others say goodbye without leaving. Could this old saw be extended to Mercury Orchestra’s concert of two Ralph (don’t say ralf) Vaughan Williams Symphonies at Sanders last night?
Symphony No. 4 in F Minor (1931-1935) sounds unlike anything else by RVW that this writer has heard; it’s as if its composer were trying to sound like Shostakovich. One could be forgiven for imagining its tumult as a response to the Great War. Annotator (and trombonist) Roger Hecht quoted the composer’s implausible denial, “[It is not]…a picture of anything external…a man might just want to write a piece of music.” It announces its arrival in shrieking and craggy tones without saying hello. Nothing about it evokes the English pastoral scene or concerns itself about feeling welcome. Are we hearing music for the end of days? A second theme in the first movement rises in the strings to sue for peace, but no treaty obtains; it is almost immediately overwhelmed by Dies Irae-esque tumult, which broadens into a sad wailing and bitter acclamation. Mercury’s strings blended in a shiny liquidity when the composer gave them the chance, and Channing Yu shaped large architectural forms with inevitable expression, but mostly the conductor had to be an alert and responsive cop to deal with the sneering traffic jam of loud brass and overwhelming tuttis…so loud that the eruption of a woman’s personal-assault alarm did not stop the show. In the Scherzo, Yu underlined essential details within the multitudes and perhaps found some bounce. A diffident fugal moment announces itself before being overwhelmed by tremolos and rapid figurations which in turn led to more bombastic vehemence. Hopeful interludes never lasted. Stabbing chords and Taras Bulba marches continued to agitate, even while siren songs reminded of us our distant aristocratic hosts. At the close, a sneering snare drum gave notice that the party was over, and RVW left with a very brief goodbye in the form of a quick, loud ritard.
Mercury Orchestra, now in its 14th summer season, certainly plays beyond its community-ensemble weight. The 37 strings blended well and responded to Yu’s artistry with well-developed expression. The one hardworking contrabass player, Brett Sawka, listed as principal, could have benefited from a standmate or two, though we could certainly hear him; the big bass drum alongside him helped somewhat. The winds, brass, and percussion essayed their martial arts victoriously.
By contrast, Symphony No, 5 in D Major arrives at the alfresco party with an extended and genial hello-horn call. A veddy British scene unfolds with folkish tunes wrapping us in soothing and elaborate twists and turn reminiscent of the Lark Ascending, Wenlock Edge, and Serenade to Music. There will always be an England. The first movement ends quietly, as do the other three. Movement II, Scherzo gives the effect of change ringing, well-rung, as patterns repeat with differences. It proceeds in a lightly bumptious manner and then just stops. No. III Romanze sounds an evening hymn from the Church of England Missal, as open-hearted, deep and very grand as anything RVW’s teacher Hubert Parry might have penned. The Passacaglia last movement depicts a countryside in rutting season. The big animals romance each other while the hens and chickens cluck. The rapture builds to near ecstasy but then retreats and reconsiders. Do these tunes really want to leave? RVW, so enamored of his lovingly churning materials continually says goodbye but is the last man to leave the party.
The excellent individuals in this ensemble never squandered their many solo opportunities. Yu called out virtually every principal at the end. We would cite concertmaster Jennifer Hsiao, cellist Joseph Rovine, oboist Sharon Juhasz, English hornist Deanna Dawson, bassoonist Lauren Landry, and contra-bassoonist Jeffrey Freeman for some delicious lines alone and in sparkling accompanied duets. Flutist Ellen Rakatansky made much of her extensive solo passages.
Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer