Berkshire Symphony shows promise for upcoming season

The Berkshire Symphony played their first concert of the year to a nearly overflowing Chapin Hall last Friday. The orchestra sounded vibrant and alive all night long and the audience, which included many first-year parents, here for Parents Weekend was appropriately receptive. The program was a bit homogenous, however, and I don’t think it will help conductor Ronald Feldman and Berkshire win any more ASCAP awards for Adventuresome Programming.

The “Overture” to Carl Maria von Weber’s Oberon is a great piece to warm up an audience. It has a restrained dynamic for most of its duration. In the end, Berkshire delivered a hearty forte, really showing off the group’s sound, which is quite full this year.

Richard Strauss’ Serenade in E-Flat Major, Op. 7 is really not a characteristic work of a composer whose symphonic poems and operas are much more adventureous. Could this really be the work of the man who wrote Also Sprach Zarathustra (a.k.a. the opening to 2001) and Der Rösenkavalier? This piece’s opening sounds like an interlude for a Mozart opera, and with the exception of a few interesting chords, doesn’t go much beyond this. The piece does, however, show off the strong wind ensemble that Berkshire sports and, if nothing else, we were allowed to bask in some of their thick organ-like chords.

The bulk of this concert was devoted to Mozart. The “Prague” Symphony (in D Major, no. 38), which closed the program, was fairly uneventful. Geographically, Feldman swapped the cellos and the basses with one section of the violins. The overall purpose of this eludes me, but there were a couple of moments where the violins call-response imitations were accentuated by the separation of the two sections (sort of a stereo effect) and that made it worth the spectacle.

Feldman led the orchestra well, even though the reading was emotionally flat. The fact that the piece sounded quite good is a credit to the quality of musicianship in the group. However, the Andante movement was particularly empty. It was nice listening but little attention was given to articulation and phrasing which prevented the piece from reaching much of its emotional potential. But with Mozart, as long as you play the right notes, a decent product is easily attainable.

Visiting artist Awadagin Pratt was on hand to play Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 in A Major, K. 488. Pratt leaves someone like me with more to talk about than I can possibly fit into a review. While I want to mention his musical performance, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention his loud yellow shirt (which I liked) as well as his custom made piano bench. The wooden bench is truly bizarre. It is low to the ground so that even a large man such as Pratt ends up with the keyboard nearly horizontal to his chest! This is a simple, albeit surprising, personal preference.

Pratt’s performance is hard to sum up. While he was impressive, his performance was decidedly strange and his interpretation is certainly not one that a true Mozart scholar would subscribe to. To add more quirkiness, he mimed a bit of keyboard work during the orchestral exposition and I got the feeling that he was playing as if no one was watching, like the way he’d play at home. This was not a bad thing; some pianists sit there like stones until their part. (The orchestra itself was fairly unnoticeable after the first exposition, which I suppose is the best compliment you can give an orchestra playing this type of concerto.)

Pratt’s balance with the orchestra was excellent, although I felt that his performance was a little pedal-heavy for Mozart. Later, Pratt’s cadenza (a showy solo passage) was extremely unorthodox. Mozart rarely wrote down his cadenzas, leaving pianists the option to borrow ones from their peers or to compose/improvise their own. I’m fairly certain that a great deal of this cadenza was improvised, especially since Feldman had absolutely no idea when it was going to end (and thus the orchestra’s entrance afterwards was anything but crisp). Stylistically, Pratt’s cadenza was tonally schizophrenic; a hybrid of typical Mozart and a late Beethoven sonata. Cadenzas are supposed to be showy, but his tonalities and voicings were unexpected, and definitely out of place.

After a pretty reading of the Andante, Pratt opened the Presto movement with tremendous speed. While once again impressive, I felt rushed and the piece’s more beautiful moments flew by unnoticed. The performance was fun to watch, due to the inherent beauty and spunk of the piece and Pratt’s dynamism. However, I felt that the end product did not wholly justify some of the drastic deviations from more conventional interpretations.

One thing is clear from this concert; Berkshire is strong this year. It has the potential to deliver some truly great performances, and we saw flashes of that on Friday.