Berkshire Symphony’s all 20th-century concert last Friday ranked among the least intimidating of its kind. Over the past 100 years, almost every musical element has been questioned, from tonality, to the essence of what constitutes music itself. Many concertgoers shy away from the more adventurous vistas. Friday’s concert, however, played to the more conventional, “tonal-oriented” ear, and had works from this century that were lighter in than many 19th-century works.
When listening to a recent work such as Libby Larsen’s Overture For The End of A Century, composed in 1994, one asks: what is the composer trying to express? Up until recent decades, composers could explore uncharted territory with new works. The twelve-tone system was introduced and microtonality made its way into western music. Even rhythms were left to chance at times. Using John Cage as a reference (where, apparently, several minutes of silence constitutes music) we can see how the one-upmanship of 20th century music self-destructed. Ironically, with this liberation, composers are left with more freedom, I believe, to express pure musical ideas as opposed to experimentation.
With that said, Larsen’s Overture is not a profound piece. It is, however, quite entertaining. From an academic standpoint it offers nothing revolutionary, but that criterion should not be necessary any longer. Its opening bars are playful, and I enjoyed them a lot. The B section of the piece is a straightforward look at how Larsen thought those ideas should be developed and colored. There are no surprises, nor any hidden agenda. As a result of a catchy theme and interesting orchestral color (including some good scoring for percussion), I enjoyed this piece on a sheer aural level.
Aaron Copland’s suite from the ballet Appalachian Spring is as “Copland” as you get. The piece is laced with controlled dissonances, notably thick with added-note chords in the strings. While I absolutely love this piece and respect that Copland originally conceived the work for chamber orchestra (as Berkshire played it), I am never able to hear the original 1944 version without comparing it to the later full orchestral score that is played prominently today. It’s a lot like looking at a pencil sketch of a painting in which color is the most exciting element. Yes, it has its own beauty, but we miss the realization of a greater vision. What one hopes to gain in performing the chamber version is a cozier blend.
While the performance brought us some of that, occasionally diminished by some wretched tuning issues in the lower strings, the sacrifice was, and always is, the loss of effective climaxes. More than a few struggling fortissimos left me yearning for the full orchestra. Clearly, though, this is not the fault of the players. I still wonder why conductor Ronald Feldman chose not to conduct the later version. Wonderful solo work by Floyd Hebert on flute and Susan Martula on clarinet really saved the performance.
Jean Sibelius’s Symphony No. 2, in D major from 1902 (just sneaking its way into the 20th century) comprised the second half of the program. This piece certainly has more in common with 19th-century music than 20th-century music; everything from its themes to its structural form links it thus. Berkshire played it superbly. In probably the best performance of any work by Berkshire in recent memory, Feldman paid great attention to detail, especially the characteristic measured silences, which I will return to later. During the intense Andante (ma rubato), I felt an insistent emotional push that made all the difference. After the surprisingly fast scherzo, the piece attacks straight into a lengthy fourth movement.
The Finale evokes nationalism whether Sibelius (a proud Finn) acknowledged it or not. Unlike many finales that are conceived as punctuations for the preceding symphonic gestures, this finale presents some of the most exciting material in the work. While the other sections were generally good, the most exceptional sounds came from the brass. The brass section sported 11 strong players, albeit only one Williams student among them. As a group, and in solo passages, they played brilliantly in the fourth movement, eliciting a warm ovation.
One major disappointment in this concert came not from the stage but from the audience. Many conductors have bemoaned the coughing phenomenon that seems to plague American audiences (although I’ve seen it worse in France, personally). As a service to our fellow concertgoers, let’s move to diminish this problem by taking care of our immediate health needs as quietly as possible and at more opportune times than during “rests,” or measured silence. Measured silence, if used wisely, as in the Sibelius, creates pure drama. Some of Feldman’s more inspired interpretations of such moments during the Sibelius were tainted by unwanted audience participation.