BSO hits the right note with opera and Perle

Last Friday night, the Berkshire Symphony Orchestra (BSO), under the baton of Ronald Feldman, presented its second concert of the year. Titled “May 16, 1915 – January 23, 2009,” the concert continued this year’s tribute to composers who died in 2009. Featuring the Adagio for Orchestra composed by George Perle, the BSO also performed concert selections from Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s opera Eugene Onegin – marking the first time Feldman and the BSO have performed an operatic work – and Franz Schubert’s “Tragic” Symphony No. 4.

Without waiting for the welcoming applause to die down, Feldman began the “Polonaise” from the third act of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, thrusting us without hesitation into an exhilarating opening number. Though the orchestra performed the piece cleanly and with energy, the concert began in earnest with the following piece from Onegin’s famous letter scene. In the storyline of Onegin, a young Russian girl named Tatiana (whose soprano part was powerfully delivered by Kerry Ryer-Parke, a voice instructor at the College) has just met the male protagonist, world-weary Onegin (sung by baritone and voice instructor Keith Kibler), and Tatiana sings a solo while struggling to write a confession of her love for him. The frequent tempo changes and the alternation between major and minor tonal areas convey her difficulty in finding the right words to write and her indecision over whether to write the letter at all. Ryer-Parke found the heart of her character both in voice and in action; during the emotionally fraught instrumental interludes, she even sat before a desk with a quill pen to mimic writing. Singing in Russian is no easy task for a non-speaker, so it was particularly impressive that Ryer-Parke not only mastered the language but also used it as an expressive tool amplifying an already stellar performance.

Compared to the letter scene, the waltz from Act Two felt distinctly lightweight, but it was a welcome respite before the symphony began the dramatic final duet: Onegin approaches an older, now-married Tatiana with words of love that echo those he once rejected from her. She, in turn, abandons him. In contrast with Ryer-Parke’s character-driven performance, Kibler focused on the music itself, giving a dynamic and explosive rendition of the desperate lover. The orchestral members, unaccustomed to the style of opera, once in a while took a few moments to follow the singers at each tempo change, but the effort they made to avoid overpowering the duet was, as a rule, successful.

After intermission – wisely moved at the last minute to an earlier point during the program – George Perle’s Adagio for Orchestra (1992) was a change of pace and focus. Included in the program notes was Perle’s refusal to describe the piece so as to prevent listeners from developing “prejudices and preconceptions” about his work. Surprisingly accessible yet by no means straightforward, the composition focused on blending the ensemble as a whole, achieving a full richness throughout. Haunting string passages gave way to carefully orchestrated wind colorations, varied but always coherent, and the piece seemed a juxtaposition of the eerie with Romanticist expressionism. Feldman and the orchestra showed great control over a wide range of dynamics and colors; the winds in particular should be commended for balance right up to the last drawn-out, deeply ambiguous chord.

The final piece of the night was Schubert’s Symphony No. 4 in C Minor (1816), later subtitled “Tragic” by the composer himself. In typical Schubert fashion, the work featured both the standard forms and lyricism of conservative Classicism and the abrupt transitions into remote keys and heightened chromaticism of progressive Romanticism.

The first movement opens adagio with a full-orchestra attack in unison C and then quiets down as the ensemble passes around a brief motif. Soon the tempo jumps to allegro and the rest of the first movement proceeds in sonata form. The performance of this movement was quite precise, though the first iteration of certain phrases felt lacking, expression-wise; upon repetition, expression was restored.

Similarly, the andante second movement was well performed but somewhat one-dimensional, though dramatic mid-movement shifts to the minor key were executed with conviction. The third movement, a minuet, opened with a lyrical unison line so chromatically inflected that it was difficult to determine whether it was major or minor. The orchestra felt a bit more enlivened during the minuet, as though the players found it somewhat more enjoyable. The final movement was also livelier, perhaps because it presented the biggest challenge of the night to the ensemble. Yet the orchestra lived up to its fast-paced demands.

Though it may have been less note-perfect than other performances of the night, the finale was easily the most energetic and emotive part of the symphony, drawing the concert to a rousing and satisfying close.