Symphony surveys easy listening program

A full 15 minutes before the Berkshire Symphony Orchestra (BSO) took the stage last Friday, Chapin Hall was packed. As shocking as it is for anyone to show up early for a concert on this campus, show up they did – and in droves. The BSO was preparing to play a program of warm, familiar music for this cold first-year Parents Weekend.

Although I enjoyed the concert, I was a bit saddened by the uncharacteristically conservative repertoire. Perhaps director Ron Feldman was tired of pouring time into the one work per concert that the audience decides beforehand is something they will not enjoy, or perhaps he just wanted to achieve fire capacity attendance; for whatever reason, the concert was certainly very easy for the unversed audience member to appreciate.

The orchestra opened with Strauss’ Overture from “Die Fledermaus,” a bubbly piece that encapsulates the larger-than-life action which is about to unfold upon the opera’s stage. The piece has a cyclic quality during which the music gets caught up in its own revelry and periodically loses control.

It was played quite well by the ensemble, whose dramatic gestures were on the verge of really falling to pieces; they played the piece as an organically unified ensemble. When the music waltzed, I could imagine the costume ball; when the music began to boil over, I could sense the debauchery. There were a few distracting moments caused by an errant percussion section ignoring Feldman’s downbeats. Had these moments come late in the work, I could have believed them to be purposeful excess, but they came early and were corrected as the work progressed.

Schubert was the master of yearning and mystery, shades and subtlety. Though many of the bipolar composer’s works present a manic perspective, they are still coherent works and must be performed as such. This bipolarity helped Schubert’s “Unfinished Symphony” escape a cogent performance this past weekend.

The first movement contains a repetition of the first several minutes of material, and the BSO likewise gave us a repetition. It is inconceivable that Schubert intended two indistinguishable renditions to be performed consecutively, yet that was the effect. This stasis disallowed any momentum, which could have provided a reasonable context for the stream of consciousness bipolarity of the work.

Furthering this trend were the very harsh segmentations throughout the performance. No work should come to a complete halt even once, yet this one did several times. There were also a few poorly executed more specific effects. A handful of times during the piece, all of the musicians – save the first violins – are directed to pause while the unsupported violins play a tentative octave motif. It is an entirely different matter to evoke trepidation than for the string players to seem timid. Each time this motif appeared, at least one violin played either a discordant pitch or, alternatively, the right pitch out of time with his or her section.

Schubert’s writing is more than sufficient to convey the effect without such extreme attempts that illuminate the mechanics of the orchestra rather than its motives. There were, however, some extraordinary moments during the performance. Particularly worthy of mention were the woodwind soli, oboe and clarinet. They were well-balanced and conceived within the work as well as subtly performed.

Throughout the Romantic era, a debate raged among musicians. Beethoven had taken the symphony and transformed it into something universally massive and organically unified, but in doing so, felt he needed to draw in new elements. His third symphony was a reaction to the existence and power of Napoleon; his fifth is frequently portrayed as a struggle with and acceptance of his fate of going entirely deaf; his sixth has a clearly delineated plot and his ninth incorporates solo and choral voices singing the now famous “Ode to Joy.”

Beethoven left a shadow after his death, and the reactions of other musicians to this legacy can be used to explain much of the musical developments in Romanticism. Brahms championed the faction of music critics supporting the argument that felt there was still plenty of “absolute music,” or music without extra-musical content, left to write.

Our concept of intellectual music has certainly changed since the middle of the nineteenth century. The personal, intellectualized expression of emotion in the works of Brahms appear to be far more compelling than the overly specified – perhaps even clichéd – works of his contemporaries. There is, however, still a danger that Brahms will come across as cold. Concert audiences at the debut of the “Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D major Op. 77” attributed this to the composition itself. However, the performance of this piece by the BSO came across as abstract.

The work is extremely demanding of the soloist, and violinist Joanna Kurkowicz displayed amazing technical virtuosity in its performance, amazing enough that it bears repeating. Kurkowicz may be the most skilled violinist I have ever heard play a concerto. Her arpeggios were spectacular, her high notes perfectly in tune and her multiple stops worthy of full string quartets.

However, as I looked around the auditorium during the piece, I got the impression that listeners were watching Joanna’s hands, not her face. One of the violists sat and stared during the dazzling cadenza, slack-jawed.

Combined with her very clear, precise sound, this left me with the impression that the goal of her struggle had been correct execution of the solo, but nothing more. If I have learned nothing else during my studies of music, I know that the best performers are a little imprecise and make a few premeditated errors.

All three movements were, as mentioned above, technically brilliant. The first two were a bit lacking for effect, but the third was a bow to the more traditional flashy finale that lent itself directly to the pyrotechnics that seem to be Kurkowicz’s specialty.

Friday’s concert was good, if occasionally jolting. Music aficionados certainly might not have felt stretched by it, but a challenging program need not be the goal of every concert.