Stormy Surprises from the Greenwich Village Orchestra
[republished from New York Music Daily’s sister blog Lucid Culture]
There are plenty of joyous, exciting orchestras in town, without even mentioning the kind of electricity that the New York Philharmonic can generate. Recent concerts here by the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony, East Coast Chamber Orchestra and Spectrum Symphony have all been high-voltage, and the Chelsea Symphony across town can always be counted on for an entertaining performance. But the Greenwich Village Orchestra seems to have a little more fun than anybody else.
Their concert this past Sunday on Irving Place didn’t start out that way. Conductor Barbara Yahr led them gracefully through Samuel Barber’s Adagio, to open on a somber note. There’s only one way to play that piece – it’s funeral music, and you either do it that way, or you do it wrong. Yahr and orchestra took care to take no chances and the music was better off for it.
They brought the volume up, slowly and methodically, with Barber’s Violin Concerto, from 1939, the year after the Adagio was written. And the first two movements made a fantastic segue because they sound like a continuation of it. Guest violinist Hye-Jin Kim met the lush sonics with a judiciously silken tone, handing off to the ensemble on more than one occasion with a perfectly measured dignity and grace, the results were so seamless. But the third movement was as electric as anyone could have hoped for and Kim dug into it with relish. When she wasn’t sprinting through rapidfire volleys of chromatics, she had a grin on her face, tapping out the rhythm on her hip, lost in the sway of the music. Kim has gone on record as dedicating herself to illuminating the emotion in what she plays, and she nailed the triumph and surprise in this one, over the lively, balletesque pulse that seemingly appears out of nowhere. Behind her, bassist Jeff Rozany and oboeist Shannon Bryant contributed lushly fluid intros that stood out in contrast.
Here are two theories about Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5, both of which could be wrong. For starters, the symphony is such a hodgepodge – if a brilliant one – that it seems that the composer was emptying the tank, fleshing out every idea that might have been kicking around his songbook. Was there a doubt that he’d survive World War II – or survive Stalin? That’s hardly implausible. Another theory relates to subtext, that what Prokofiev is saying, other than rejoicing in telling the Nazis to take a hike, is that now that we’ve sent one bunch of fascists packing, it’s high time we got our own house in order. Whatever the case, what’s inarguable about this work is that its multi-facetedness makes it very difficult to play. Yahr’s approach was to raise the bar and the volume as high as it would go, right out of the gate, setting up all kinds of suspense for when the triumph dies down and the distantly ominous foreshadowing begins. Yahr remarked beforehand that there are passages of “pure evil” in this, and she’s right – the caricatures of mechanistic Nazis and various fascist buffoons, staggering with the weight of the low brass and the timpani, are brutal. That surrealism left a vivid mark, through the stormy conclusion, which was almost too giddy to be true – yet unshakably true to the composer’s vision
The GVO’s next concert, on May 18 at 3 PM, is an especially high-voltage one, with an eclectic Spanish-tinged program that spans the emotional spectrum: Copland’s El Salón México; Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio Espagnol; Ginastera’s Estancia suite, and largescale arrangements of Piazzolla tangos.