The Park Avenue Chamber Symphony’s name is a bit of a mismoner: yesterday they were a mighty, mammoth ensemble, concluding their season with a program aptly titled Majestic Finale, pairing Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4 with Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 in midtown Manhattan. David Bernard conducted from memory, without a score: he has these pieces in his fingers, leading the orchestra with a vigorous meticulousness, bolstered by a confidence that there were no limits on where this music might go, from a whisper to a scream. Employing the entirety of the sonic spectrum, the orchestra responded with a frequently exhilarating performance.
Why, two hundred years after the fact, is Beethoven still so relevant? Ultimately, it boils down to transcendence. This was somebody who couldn’t stop writing for fear that he’d completely lose his muse, even if he could no longer perceive one. He hadn’t yet completely lost his hearing when he composed his Fourth Symphony, but by then it had become an issue. An indomitable response in the face of despair, the symphony is arguably every bit the match for his Fifth. Up close to the orchestra (close being the operative word here, a reliably welcome fringe benefit at this group’s concerts), it was impossible to ignore how difficult its thrills are to deliver. And the orchestra pulled them off, one by one. Bernard set up the fireworks up by keeping the mournful initial stillness of the first movement rapt and mysterious, to where Beethoven says something to the extent of “well, that’s enough mourning, now we’re off!” and then the fun began.
Lo-fi stereo effects were deftly balanced between lustrous woodwinds and tensely anticipatory strings, pregnant pauses executed flawlessly, the strings galloping through a thicket of glissandos with an abandon that stopped just thisshort of recklessness. By contrast, the adagio second movement took on a resonant cantabile that again set up somewhat less dramatic fireworks in the third movement’s intricately shapeshifting rhythms and then the final allegro, which was vividly Beethoven as opposed to Beethoven-esque. This orchestra gets this music.
Where to go after that showstopper? Nowhere but down. Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 is best understood in its original context as a lavishly arranged song suite. Where the Beethoven is all about ensemble playing, this is about individual voices set against a massive backdrop, both of which were briskly and efficiently delivered. Orchestra and conductor deserve credit for seizing those moments as they arrived, one by one, but conventional wisdom and cutting-edge orchestration be damned: aside from the clever permutations on the klezmer dance in the third movement and the outraged cinematics that explode with the introduction of the fourth, this is an insubstantial and vastly overrated piece of music. It would make a fitting soundtrack to an epic film that only gets interesting after everybody’s left the theatre. The program notes cited a contemporary critic’s appraisal that the audience at its debut responded enthusiastically through the end of the second movement’s cartoonish funeral march and then lost interest: yesterday the reaction was just the opposite. Which makes sense in the presence of modern ears. In the wake of a series of shamelessly pilfered folk themes – most obviously Bruder Martin, the minor-key, Teutonic version of Frere Jacques – and veering nonsensically from the comedic to the serious or quasi-serious, the outrage and heartbreak of the conclusion arrived without an iota of the clever foreshadowing that was so captivating in the Beethoven. The effect was stunning – Bernard and the ensemble took it up as far as the roof would allow – but it begged the question of whether or not it was worth the wait. By itself, it would have made a deliciously high-voltage coda after the Beethoven and would have made the orchestra’s workout somewhat less arduous.
The Park Avenue Chamber Symphony kicks off its next season auspiciously on October 27 at 8 PM and then the next day at 3 PM with Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony, Richard Strauss’ Till Eulenspiegel and Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto with Terry Eder at the piano.
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