Berkshire Symphony impresses with solo prowess, precision

The Berkshire Symphony’s last concert on Friday, February 26, served as an occasion for individual players to shine. Two of the three pieces were heavily dependent on the soloists, with one – a concerto grosso – explicitly so, and in all cases the performers delivered.

For this concert the orchestra was under the baton of James Setapen of the Amarillo Symphony. Setapen has conducted various orchestras in America and Europe, among them the Florence Sinfonietta and the Baltimore Symphony. He is a graduate of the Eastman School of Music and the Cleveland Institute of Music.

The orchestra first performed the “Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 in G Major” by Johann Sebastian Bach, the second Brandenburg Concerto to be performed this season. A concerto grosso is a piece in which the orchestra accompanies a group of soloists. In this concerto grosso the soloists were the violin, played by concertmaster Kathy Andrew, and two recorders, in this performance played by two flutes, principal Floyd Herbert, and Jessica Robbins ’01. The concerto consists of three movements: fast, slow and faster.

The first movement began with a light, detached step: a not particularly passionate dance about a maypole. But as the orchestra progressed it gained energy, losing its distance from the music (this progression also occurred in the third movement). The violin solos were executed with sublime liquidity and the flutes played with precision. The orchestra played with clarity and dynamic phrasing, effectively juxtaposing its contrasting passages despite momentary lapses into imprecision. Setapen molded the rich sound of the orchestra into wonderful shape; the orchestra and soloists both possessed a lyric quality.

The final movement began, and continued, with clear articulation and phrasing between all of the voices. The passing notes gave the impression of vivid clockwork. In this movement violinist Andrew gave a spectacular performance, melding immaculate precision with passion. The flutes were also excellent, as was principal cellist Richard Mickey, who throughout the movement played contrapuntal accompaniment to the soloists, breathing life into the busy rhythms.

David Leisner’s “Dances in the Madhouse,” a piece inspired by a George Bellow lithograph portraying a group of dancers in an asylum, followed. The piece is a suite; each of the movements is a dance that corresponds to a group portrayed in the lithograph. Each is a slight variation on a stereotypical form, with a few quirks that remind the audience of the setting of these dances.

The movements are, in order, “Tango Solitaire,” “Waltz for the Old Folks,” “Ballad for the Lonely” and “Samba!” Harmonic structure and stylistic contrasts reminiscent of movie theme music added drama. The piece also employed some dissonance and rhythmic confusion in attempting to capture madness, but overall it gave the impression of snatches of self-consciously over-dramatic music tied together. The most interesting aspect of the work was the set of various solo voices that provided its heart. The soloists – horn, bass clarinet, violin and others – acted as the vehicle of the melodies, and the character of each piece.

Both soloists and orchestra played well. They nimbly met the contrasts within the piece and breathed life into the styles they portrayed. The quirky twists and stylistic leaps were performed with vigor or gloom, depending on what was required. Nevertheless, the music itself disappointed.

Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 3 “Scotch” followed. A beautiful piece full of wistful melodies, drama, gentle motions and in the end, exuberance, this symphony was inspired by Scotland, where Mendelssohn began its composition. The orchestra played it well, maintaining the standards of articulation, contrast and vibrancy that it had displayed throughout the concert. The Orchestra and Setapen left their audience having provided them with an excellent evening.

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *