In spite of competition from the concurrent and sold-out New York City Ballet performance, a large audience gathered last Friday night in Chapin Hall for the Berkshire Symphony Orchestra’s (BSO) opening concert of its fall season. Titled “January 24, 1919-September 17, 2009,” the concert was held in honor of the influential contemporary composer Leon Kirchner whose life spanned the dates given. In addition to one of Kirchner’s major works, the concert featured symphonies written by Franz J. Haydn and Ludwig van Beethoven.
Opening the concert was Haydn’s Symphony No. 82 in C Major. The symphony is nicknamed “The Bear” after the fourth movement, whose low “growling” motif and festive mood bring to mind dancing bear shows dating to the Middle Ages. From the very beginning, however, Symphony No. 82 is a lively and joyful work, at once demanding tonal complexity without overt seriousness and dynamism without excessive force. The BSO lived up to every one of these standards in true classical form, from its unified attack of opening premier coup to graceful interludes between sustained outbursts.
Particularly enjoyable moments in the first movement included its inversions and expansions of thematic elements: Most noticeably, an altered and expanded premier coup refrained throughout the movement. In addition, the robust basso lines – often dominated or masked in ensembles of this size but a unique strength of the BSO – supported and highlighted the alternating vigorous and lilting melody pursued by the upper strings; together, the two created an intensity which drove the BSO into the equally energetic, if sweeter in tone, second movement.
The third movement began with somewhat of a wistful character, embodied especially well by the winds and lower strings, despite the stoic brass and percussive thematic elements. By the fourth movement, the energy of the first movement returned in full from its very opening with the “growling” motif in the cellists. As the low-pitched notes moved from instrument to instrument the tonal quality varied from softly mute to strong and dominant, creating a revealing contrast between the sections while uniting them in theme.
The second work was Music for Twelve, composed by Leon Kirchner. Written for eleven symphonic instruments and piano, Music for Twelve challenges its performers, who are expected to constantly change meters, note values and tempi in order to follow the elaborate rhythmic schemes of the work. Yet as Feldman noted in his pre-concert talk, Kirchner’s own recording with the Boston Symphony Orchestra rarely matched the rhythmic instructions in his written sheet music. Thus the actual performance is largely influenced by the interaction and individual talents of the performers themselves – a structured manifestation of the improvisation so fundamental to jazz musicians, who Kirchner admired for their harmonic integrity.
From all angles Music for Twelve is without a doubt a virtuosic piece, especially for the extensive and impressive solos required from the musicians. Joanna Kurcowicz, the principal violinist, performed her extensive solos with skill and bravado while still engaging with the rest of the ensemble. Equally beautiful, if more brief, solos were played by the other ensemble members amidst a rhythmically tumultuous yet harmonic intermingling of roles.
The highly anticipated and final piece performed was Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 36. Though rarely performed when compared to his third (Eroica), fifth or seventh symphonies, a rich and dark history lies behind it. As Beethoven was writing Symphony No. 2 between 1801 and 1802, he had begun to realize the inevitability of his encroaching deafness and sunk into a deep depression. In his pre-concert talk, Feldman read excerpts from Beethoven’s personal letters which discussed his self-imposed isolation from social gatherings, despair at the thought of public exposure and suicidal tendencies.
Still the work itself is far from depressing: The first movement begins with contemplative quietude punctuated with bursts of resounding percussion before moving into the contagious exuberance characteristic to Beethoven. Phrases are often heavily accentuated, drawing attention by throwing the audience off-balance and requiring even greater delicacy and dynamism than Haydn’s Symphony No. 82. Again, BSO’s interpretation felt spot on in both enthusiasm and musical approach; at times, the tension emanating from the ensemble gave an impression of threadbare restraint from a runaway accelerando. The nostalgic second movement and playful scherzo (third movement) relieved the edginess before it returned, transformed and empowered, for the majestic finale. The ensemble was generally well-balanced when the wind soloists took the spotlight; occasionally, as the tension built further toward the end, the strings were somewhat overpowering. Overall, however, the assertiveness of the ensemble allowed it to reach its full strength and conclude the evening in a magnificent show of both technical flexibility and passion.