The Greenwich Village Orchestra Wins by Unanimous Verdict

by delarue

How do you judge an orchestra? Here’s one way: bring a posse of critical listeners, all of whom either play music, or at least used to. It didn’t take them long to return a unanimous verdict on the Greenwich Village Orchestra’s all-Dvorak performance yesterday, which should be no surprise: the GVO is well-respected, but especially among musicians. The most lukewarm endorsement came from the singer from across the river, whose passion is three-minute songcraft rather than extended orchestrations: as much as this was not her usual cup of tea, she found the concert enjoyable and relaxing. On the other hand, the esteemed Brooklyn rocker and the lone member of the posse who’s been a regular at GVO concerts since the 90s, marvelled at the performance, and was particularly blown away by cello soloist Na-Young Baek’s fluidity and seamlessness with the orchestra on the Dvorak Cello Concerto.

The crew’s harshest critic, a Lower East Side tunesmith who prefers chamber music – especially the string quartet repertoire – to larger-scale symphonic works, began by trying to figure out the time signature of the Dvorak Symphonic Dance, Op. 46, No. 8 that opened the bill, and ended up being won over by the orchestra. “Let me rephrase what I said about not liking brass,” he clarified. “I do like brass, if it’s well done. Like these guys,” referring to their passionately but meticulously articulated final movement of Dvorak’s Symphony No. 8. And the most enthusiastic endorsement came from the former punk rock bandleader who’s been known to get a little lifted before shows. “Who needs drugs?” she scoffed. “This music is a drug.”

Personally speaking, from the point of view of someone whose passion for classical music was initially fueled by dollar vinyl from street fairs and the old Tower discount outlet, this concert was akin to the movie Pleasantville, like finally being able to see in color after years of black-and-white. Some of those old dollar records weren’t particularly well-recorded, so being able to witness this orchestra’s crystalline clarity was literally an eye-opener. They have a soft spot for Dvorak because he’s from their hood: he taught at a music school just a couple of blocks away from the Irving Place auditorium where the GVO holds their concerts. And they did his work skillfully, accentuating the subtleties and minimizing the occasional drift toward bombast. For example, consider the final movement of the Cello Concerto: if you watch old movies, you’ve heard this before (this youtube clip doesn’t do justice to the GVO version). It’s a big-cheese theme – quick, everybody into your cubicles and look busy, here comes the boss! – and it typically gets played rather broadly. But this orchestra didn’t do it broadly: instead, conductor Barbara Yahr led them on a casual walking pace rather than a swagger. And when the strings rose as the final ascent began, it wasn’t a simple, predictable swell: they gave it a minutely fluttering apprehension, with microtones clearly audible in the mix! A prime example of the kind of magic that gets lost in translation from youtube to earbuds…or in the dusty grooves of a record.

Baek’s performance on the Cello Concerto was as one with the rest of the group: she blended into it perfectly. If you know a classical work, it’s always fun to play conductor and figure out what sections you’d single out for the orchestra to really dig deeply into. There are three instances in this one where the cello takes a variation on the theme and hands it over to the high woodwinds, and every time the turnover was executed with a precision that stopped just this side of unrestrained joy. The same applied to the final handoff, where Dvorak very cleverly flips the script and sends it back the opposite way, through the basses to the cello, and no one involved let on about what was about to happen until the transition was already underway.

As the program notes alluded, much of Dvorak is far more brooding and grim than this particular bill. It might be an overstatement to characterize the entire performance as classical party music, but much of it was. And where it wasn’t – the lush nocturne, and then the austere waltz in the Symphony – it put the good cheer in perspective, all of it choreographed with perfect clarity from one section of the orchestra to the next. For example, timpani is not one of that piece’s focal points, nor is it particularly loud when it appears: but whenever it came around, it was brightly arresting, impossible to ignore. When the ensemble came to the final movement, Yahr visibly held the strings in check, as if to say, hold your horses, it’s not your turn yet, you’ll get yours when the time comes. At the end, she finally let them go, throwing caution to the wind and being rewarded for her trust in them as they stampeded for the finish line.

The GVO’s next concert, November 20 at 3 PM, is a return to their usual eclecticism: the unselfconsciously beautiful overture from Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel, Elgar’s Sea Pictures, and Moussourgsky’s creepy Pictures at an Exhibition.