Berkshire Symphony impresses with contemporary fare

In no other world but the world of classical music is a piece from 1930 still considered contemporary. Given that strange terminology, I can applaud the Berkshire Symphony Orchestra for presenting an “all-contemporary” program Friday night, featuring Gyorgy Ligeti’s Ramifications, Miklos Rozsa’s Viola Concerto and Howard Hanson’s Symphony No. 2.

Regardless of classifications, the concert was extremely satisfying, presenting a few voices from the 20th century. First on the program was Ligeti’s Ramifications, dating from 1969 and written for twelve string players. The BSO has been performing one large chamber work on each of its concerts; I don’t know why they made this decision, but it provides an interesting contrast to the larger orchestral fare. The Ligeti work was written in a period when he was at the forefront of the European avant-garde, moving away from the total serialism of the post-Weberian era in favor of a different type of chromaticism. Earlier in the century, Bela Bartok introduced many composers to quarter-tones (pitches lying between the normal 12 pitches of the Western even-tempered scale), while at the same time using extended techniques in string instruments (many adopted from folk-playing) such as snap pizzicatos, glissandos, and extensive use of harmonics. These techniques were picked up by composers such as Ligeti and extended even further.

Ramifications is a representative work from this movement. Six of the twelve performers tune their instruments a quarter-tone flat, opening the door for wonderful textures where chords are comprised of 24 notes instead of the usual twelve. Fast runs of short passages lead to a texture that is similar to some of those found in the aleatoric works of Witold Lutoslawski, who was working with such sounds at exactly the same time. Ramifications works because of the intricate, delicate, ever-changing textures that Ligeti creates. The musicians on stage sound like they are engaged in a Voltron-like endeavor, forming a larger cohesive instrument from the sum of their parts. Many people I spoke with after the concert told me that they enjoyed the piece a lot, despite their confusion. That’s exactly the sort of response one would hope for.

Next on the program was Miklos Rozsa’s Viola Concerto, written in 1979. Roberto Diaz, principal violist from the Philadelphia Orchestra, was the soloist, and certainly knew how to put on a show. Midway through the last movement, one of his strings popped, and the audience was forced to wait as he replaced it. This really broke up the piece; I wasn’t loving the concerto to begin with, and by the time the orchestra got back to playing I was just hearing them out, no longer terribly engaged with the performance. Rozsa was chiefly a composer for film; as such, he was big on tugging the ol’ heart strings and building to the grand dramatic moment. While this can be done tactfully, the cinema does not call for tact or subtlety, and little was held back in this piece. Ultimately, although I enjoyed some of the colors and build-ups that Rozsa displayed (and it was a display) before us, it seemed that all the pomp was surrounding a thin core, making the experience rather unsatisfying. Nevertheless, I’m glad to have had the opportunity to hear one of his works; if nothing else, it’s always nice to know what someone was up to in the year I was born.

After intermission, the concert concluded with Howard Hanson’s Symphony No. 2, which bears the heading “Romantic.” This work provoked a mild controversy among my friends and me; to everyone’s surprise, this neophile director of the Independent Music Project really enjoyed the symphony. I believe that I may have dropped a few notches in the high-brow campus arts scene; certain notable artistic figures were seen sneering in my direction as I declared my affection for this bombastic, over-emotional work.

I can understand why people would dismiss Hanson’s symphony. In certain ways, it’s like a Tchaikovsky symphony transported to 1930, with huge orchestral sounds and big, obvious melodies. You’d think that I would be forced to tell you all about a hidden subtlety that might distinguish this work from Tchaikovsky or Rozsa, but I really can’t make such a claim. The “Romantic” symphony is an overtly unsubtle piece of music; somewhere in that quality may lie its charm. I enjoyed the sounds the orchestra was making, I enjoyed the melodies and harmonies, I enjoyed being forced down specific emotional paths. What can I say? It’s better than being addicted to heroin.

All in all, Friday’s BSO concert was a really good show that pleased just about everyone. I wish that I could say that was the case for more concerts on this campus. I should note that the playing throughout the performance was extremely good, with a wonderful blend of a variety of different orchestral sounds. Diaz’s playing was not overwhelmed by the orchestra, though the ensemble demonstrated that it was capable of reaching a tremendous forte sound in the Hanson symphony. Feldman did a fine job in leading the orchestra through some difficult repertoire. Caviar for all involved!