Berkshire Symphony gives a nearly seamless performance

The Berkshire Symphony Orchestra performed its first concert of the year last Friday, incorporating works from Baroque to contemporary.The 50-odd member ensemble featured a host of new faces, as each of the string sections had welcomed additions from the freshman class.

As the strings finished tuning, Ronald Feldman, conductor of the Berkshire Symphony and Artist-in-Residence in Orchestral Performance and Conducting, introduced soprano Rachael Holmes ’03. Holmes opened the concert with an extraordinary interpretation of “America, the Beautiful.” She sang the first two stanzas of the song without accompaniment, using gestures and facial expressions to enhance the song’s mood. The second verse incorporated more soul-inspired elements, adding a unique touch to her rendition, and her touching and inspiring performance received thunderous applause.

The first half of the concert, which featured the strings, began with Baroque composer Alessandro Scarlatti’s Concerto No. 3 in F Major. The piece opened with a strong and energetic pulse, and the ensemble listened well to one another in subsequent movements, following Feldman’s expressive lead. In the solo strains involving concertmaster Alexander Romanul and principal cellist Susan Libby, both instruments projected adeptly, and the ensemble came back into the texture seamlessly.

The latter part of the piece included more chromatic harmonies than would be expected from this period of music. In the last movement, however, the high triplet figures in the violins presented a few intonation and technical problems. The ensemble did a wonderful job following Feldman; the determinacy and rigidness of his hands dictated the precise dynamics to the orchestra, and they responded in turn.

Contemporary composer Peter Child, a friend of Feldman and a professor of music at MIT, was present in the audience to hear the Berkshire play his Sinfonietta for String Orchestra, composed in 1998. This cheerful, flighty piece opened with a strong and determined theme. Some of the rhythmic figures in the first and second violins were jerkily played, but the concertmaster performed his solo well and comfortably. The soli sections involving the first stand of each section were well-blended. The cello, most of all, impressed me with its fluidity and depth of sound.

The second movement had a tendency to rush, but the carefree theme nevertheless left me smiling. The violas carried their weight in this piece, stepping up to the plate with solidly-played interjections and confident accompaniment figures. When the celli and violas played together, the celli tended to be lost in a growling wash of sound; the violas projected their lines well and came out audibly. In the third movement, the whole ensemble listened to one another impressively well and followed Feldman scrupulously; he utilized the whole of his podium, almost dancing to the music. Beautiful, ethereal effects such as harmonics in the double basses lent a surreal depth to the captivating, mostly non-tonal harmonies. The fourth and final movement, another lively and quick one, kept its momentum throughout. Fast and furious sections contrasted with mysterious, barely audible sections. The piece ended on a celestial-sounding major chord played on harmonics and then faded away to nothing. Child, who seemed quite pleased, showed his appreciation by shaking Feldman’s hand.

Before beginning the next piece, the “Adagietto” from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, Feldman asked that the audience withhold applause due to its nature as a tribute to those affected by the Sept. 11 attacks. Harpist Elizabeth Morse joined the string orchestra at this point, taking time to tune her harp precisely. The orchestra played the piece with such intensity of emotion that its performance almost transcends critique; suffice it to say that the ensemble was at its height of awareness to Feldman’s requests and listened to each other attentively. The piece highlighted Morse’s talent at the harp, its sonority adding a gentle, delicate dimension to the richness of the strings. At the conclusion, the sound ebbed away to nothing, and Feldman left the stage after a moment of silence as the audience respected the tribute.

After a brief intermission, the orchestra assembled en masse for the second half of the concert, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4. It opened with a foreboding chord, consistently played in the winds. Although the winds carried their weight well in this piece, the strings tended to be lazy with the punctuated chords. Flute and violin tended to waver in intonation, but adjusted well as the piece progressed. A smooth transition to the allegro section set the stage for a lovely trade-off of melody up from bassoon to oboe to flute. The clarinet playing in this part was especially expressive and well in tune with the orchestra. Throughout the movement, the first violins exhibited sensitivity to a kinder side of Beethoven’s fiery self, playing alternating delicate and strong passages. When the flute joined the strings, it added a subtle shade to the color, an unobtrusive film over the sonority. The brass joined the rest of the orchestra at an appropriate volume, enough to be heard but not to upset the balance.

The second movement started off a little shakily. The ostinato could have been more subdued; the oboe tended to overpower the flute when both played simultaneously. Despite these shortcomings, the orchestra made up for it, mostly in the sweeping motives in the strings and the soli winds.

Flute and bassoon were well in tune with one another, and Jonathan Salter ’02’s clarinet playing can be described by few other words than simply beautiful. He shaped phrases adeptly; his playing seemed to materialize out of nothing smoothly, sculpting gestures out of time and sound. This movement juxtaposed various tone colors and dynamics. The orchestra seemed to be pushed to the extremes only to flow into a completely different setting for the third movement.

The third movement, a quick scherzo, started strongly, although at times the sudden shifts in dynamics were too severe and could have been slightly less drastic in magnitude. Violins played well, rising together in their interjectory motives, and trade-offs of melody between the strings were especially nice. The orchestra followed Feldman’s transitions from meno to allegro back and forth quite precisely, ending with solid panache on the last chord.

The fourth and final movement showcased all of the lyricism and enthusiasm the orchestra could muster. The energetic running theme was a little lost in the violins the first time through, but they quickly recovered and played it more exactly after the repeat. As for the triplet clarinet lines, Salter could have brought that running color out a little more; I heard it only because I was listening for it.

The growl-like interjections in the strings added much color and fire to the performance, setting the stage for great finish. Woodwind ensemble director Stephen Walt’s bassoon playing came to light in an adeptly played solo of incredibly quick sixteenth notes. The oboes seemed to be the weaker links in the woodwind section. I was under the impression that they played better when they were following a concrete example by imitating a line that had been stated previously. Salter capped off his performance with a running solo line identical to Walt’s; he, too, sang through his instrument on the figure.

When the final motive passed by, I regretted that Beethoven had not written more. The orchestra played with such spirit and fervor that I wanted them to keep on going. As for Feldman, he clearly showed that he was in his element; this concert further confirmed his aptitude for the Williams podium. Last Friday left me wishing for yet more music, and luckily, Feldman and the Berkshire Symphony will have just that in a month and change.