Berkshire, je t’aime: Orchestra performs ‘Paris’

The Berkshire Symphony’s Friday night presentation of Paris marked the group’s first concert of the new year. Guest conductor Federico Cortese, stepping in for director Ronald Feldman, on sabbatical for the semester, led the orchestra in a spirited program of Stravinsky, Mozart and Tchaikovsky and won enthusiastic applause from the packed Chapin Hall crowd for his ferociously energetic efforts.

At first glance, the program title seems a misnomer: None of the three composers presented were French, nor did they write in a predominantly French style. Stravinsky had the most obvious connection to the country, for although he was born in Russia, it was in Paris that he first found success with the 1910 ballet The Firebird. The Suite No. 2 for Small Orchestra, played Friday night, was originally a series of piano duets written for his children. Orchestrated in 1921 for a Paris music hall, it was intended as incidental music for short theater sketches.

The first work on the program, Stravinsky’s suite highlighted the Berkshire wind players, who were well-balanced and had some nice solos, particularly in the trumpet and bassoon. The strings had a largely secondary role, adding color and texture to the wind melodies. The lurching, off-kilter rhythms that are Stravinsky’s hallmark were fully evident: None of these dances were danceable, with sudden stops, unexpected rhythmic accents and quirky melodies. I thought the thin orchestration, perhaps appropriate for a small Parisian theater, felt a bit underwhelming in the vast space of Chapin Hall. The last dance, “Galop,” used the strings in a larger role and was consequently the most satisfying. The orchestra responded well to the numerous accelerations and sudden silences, proving able to respond quickly to Cortese’s adjustments in both tempo and volume.

The drawbacks of performing in Chapin were more evident in the Mozart Symphony No. 31 in D Major, which demands extreme precision and clarity. Subtitled Paris, the piece was written in 1778 while a young Mozart, accompanied by his mother, searched for employment in the French capital. He was asked to write the symphony for a popular public concert series, and though it was received enthusiastically, his mother’s death a month after the performance and his inability to find a suitable job left Mozart with no choice but to go back home to Salzburg, alone and unemployed.

Cortese and the Berkshire gave an impressive performance of the piece, even if it sometimes seemed to lack a certain presence and force it would have in a less acoustically resonant hall. The second movement was particularly lovely, with a great balance between strings and woodwinds and much expressive playing. The strings were particularly effective at phrasing their long, singing lines, and Cortese took great care to balance the inner voices of the texture.

The trickier third movement, with its fast passages passed between the strings, was muddier sounding than the first two, but Cortese pushed the players to a rousing climax that garnered appreciative applause from the audience.

The final work on the program, Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 in E Minor, was written in 1888, five years before the composer’s death. After a poor initial reception, disparaged by even the composer himself, the symphony has gone on to become one of his more popular orchestral works. Though it has no real connection to Paris, its powerfully redemptive spirit was a gratifying conclusion to Friday night’s concert.

The second half of the program began as the anticipatory crowd settled into its seats after intermission. The orchestra did not disappoint: The first movement was full of blooming, expressive string phrasing, beautiful solos in the clarinet and bassoon and powerful brass punctuations. I was impressed by Cortese’s expansive phrasing and his ability to gather and sustain momentum through to the end of a movement. The Tchaikovsky, more than the other works on the program, seemed an ideal vehicle for these abilities.

The second movement started with a mournful phrase in the cellos and violas and featured a striking horn solo. It was in this movement that the musicians seemed most attuned to Cortese’s delicate expression, and it resulted in some of the most subtle and well-balanced playing I have heard from the Berkshire.

The fourth movement began with a powerful, gauzy melody on the lowest string of the violins. The theme from the first movement was then transformed into a powerful march, winding through various tempo changes and variations in texture and color before ending deliberately and with great strength. The buildup of energy at the end of the movement was tremendous, and the audience was eager to applaud the orchestra.

The piece greatly benefited from the use of risers for the wind and brass players, new to the Berkshire. They were especially appropriate when the brass had powerful chords or needed to match the sound of 40 string players. It also greatly benefited from the intensity of Cortese’s conducting gestures. Never careless or merely bombastic, he was able to coax great power and great subtlety from the orchestra.

The audience loved watching the conductor’s animated movements, from his emphatic stabbing gestures for entrances to the way he flung his arms out wide for climaxes. He even managed a small jump near the end of the first movement of the Tchaikovsky. In return, the Berkshire players generally matched his enthusiasm. By the end of the concert, Cortese had clearly endeared himself to both crowd and orchestra, eliciting a quick standing ovation and, for a Berkshire concert, a surprising number of whoops and calls.