BSO brings it home with Brahms

Violinist James Bergin, Noah Fields '11 and Scott Woolweaver, artist associate in viola, performed works by Williams, Berio and Brahms.
Violinist James Bergin, Noah Fields ’11 and Scott Woolweaver, artist associate in viola, performed works by Williams, Berio and Brahms.

Back in Chapin Hall for the first time since last April, the Berkshire Symphony Orchestra presented a concert last Friday with Brahms’ Double Concerto for Violin and Cello as well as works by Luciano Berio and Vaughn Williams. Conducted by Ronald Feldman and featuring soloists Haldan Martinson and Mihail Jojatu, Bees, Brahms, and Berio followed the Berkshire’s October performance on the ’62 Center’s MainStage of music made famous by films; the group’s return to Chapin, along with the large and appreciative audience and a fairly traditional program, made this concert feel more than a bit like a homecoming.

Vaughn Williams’ The Wasps was written as incidental music to a 1909 production of the Greek comedy of the same name. The composer later arranged the music into a five-movement orchestral suite, and on Friday night the Berkshire played the Overture. It begins with aggressive, wasp-like buzzing in the strings, then melts into a jovial, off-kilter melody. Over the course of its nine-minute duration, the piece moves through many different moods, themes and orchestrations. I was impressed with Vaughn Williams’ varied and highly polished textures: Particularly nice was the nostalgic second theme, complete with pastoral, lonely horn calls and the tumultuous final passage, featuring a propulsive, continuous string line that the Berkshire rendered with thrilling precision. Overall, balance between instrumental sections was quite excellent, though the brass tended to overpower the rest of the orchestra in particularly loud places. The rich sounds and colors worked well in the highly resonant space of Chapin Hall, and the piece proved an accessible and impressive opening to the concert.

The next work, Luciano Berio’s Renderings, was of a rather different character. Berio, an avant-garde 20th-century Italian composer known best for his electronic and experimental music and his Sequenzas, a series of highly virtuosic solo pieces, was often drawn to older musical sources for inspiration in his own music. Renderings, written in 1990, is based on Schubert’s sketches for his never-finished 10th symphony. Berio took this material, however thinly sketched or incomplete, and added new sections where Schubert stopped writing. The new material is quite effectively eerie, primarily because of the introduction of the celesta, a keyboard instrument that sounds like a large music box, but the great aural delight of the piece is hearing Schubert’s melodic, lyrical phrases quietly morph into this haunting, suspended texture, as if the music was slowly being lowered into water.

In a way, the piece becomes a sort of game: The listener might know that Schubert’s sketches will be interrupted, but Berio does it so smoothly and naturally that by the time you realize you’re hearing the new material you have no idea how you’ve arrived there. The celesta player, Elizabeth Wright, and the woodwinds deserve much credit for the carefully balanced and subtle colors of Berio’s material. The second movement was particularly smooth and expressive, with melodic lines of uncommon sweetness and lyricism, but I do think the piece suffered from somewhat swollen proportions. Berio’s main idea is fairly simple, and after the second or third interruption in a movement, the audience began to grow restless and anxious to move on. Because Berio’s sections contain little noticeable development, their repeated appearance begins to feel like the piece is falling back on itself, unable to push forward.
After intermission, the audience welcomed the soloists, violinist Haldan Martinson and cellist Mihail Jojatu, to the stage to perform Brahms’ three-movement Double Concerto for Violin and Cello in A minor. Though Brahms was reticent to write works featuring solo violin, an instrument for which he never felt confident composing, the piece is highly effective and virtuosic. The orchestra is carefully thinned out when the soloists are playing in all but the most bombastic passages, allowing the audience to clearly hear the difficult and exciting violin and cello parts. The soloists were quite up to its extensive demands. Martinson’s tone was nearly impeccable: High, rippling arpeggios were rendered cleanly and in perfect tune. Jojatu was a looser, more expressive performer, with a less precise tone but a greater emotional range. I was particularly struck by his articulation of Brahms’ long, winding melodies, especially the wide, expansive melody that opened the second movement. The third movement, with its wild, modal theme, was fantastically powerful and sweeping, driven forward by the intense sound generated by the full orchestra, and the audience quickly burst into applause at the final drop of Feldman’s baton.

It was good to have the Berkshire back in Chapin Hall. Though the new stage extension has not yet been installed, the orchestra made do with the cramped space. And even though the dry acoustics on the MainStage at the last concert made the orchestra sound clear and appealingly transparent, there is something to be said about the dramatic nature of Chapin’s resonant acoustics, about the way the last chord of Friday’s concert hung in the air, making the audience pause to consider the sounds for a few seconds before continuing on to applause.