An Ambitious Take on Some Familiar Challenges by the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony
It’s often overlooked how changes in one field of music often mirror those in another. The rise of the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony into a reliably bonafide vehicle for first-class classical performance mirrors how the demise of the big record labels has relegated the realm of rock and other amplified original music to independent artists. Other volunteer New York orchestral ensembles – the well-loved Greenwich Village Orchestra, the innovative Chelsea Symphony and the fearlessly individualistic new Queensboro Symphony Orchestra – deliver quality programming, but in the past several months especially, none of them have surpassed their Park Avenue colleagues. Nor, it seems, has the New York Philharmonic.
Conductor David Bernard never made a connection he didn’t want to share with the world, an especially ambitious goal at the Park Avenue group’s concert this past Saturday night. First on the bill was a spine-tingling take of Borodin’s Polyvestian Dances. As a curtain-lifter, it was a whale of a challenge, but the maestro’s clenched-teeth, “we’re going to pull this off come hell or high water” presence pulled every available ounce of energy and impassioned playing out of the musicians onstage. A few years back, this group’s weak spot was the high strings, which would lag sometimes or fall out of sync. No more. Wow! What a thrill it was to hear the shivery, staccato cascades of this rampaging Russian dance suite fly with equal parts abandon and minute focus from stage right.
The intensity continued courtesy of guest pianist Jeffrey Biegel, who stunned the crowd with a fiercely and similarly impassioned, marathon run through the fortissimo torrents and machinegunning virtuoso volleys of Saint-Saens’ Piano Concerto No. 2 in G Minor, Op. 22. While the dynamically rich, goosebump-inducing High Romantic swells and dips through triumph and angst and finally more triumph in the end were centered in the piano, the orchestra is also highly engaged rather than a backdrop, and the lushness and frequent solo passages from throughout the group were robust and assured.
Concluding the program was a particularly ambitious multimedia performance of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherezade, with violinist Bela Horvath in the solo spotlight with his silken, often downright plaintive resonance. There were also projections, and narrator Peninnah Schram in the role of “storyteller.” Many times an orchestra will provide a program listing the various points in a piece that illustrate one thing or another; Schram, with her precise, rhythmic cadences, kept perfect pace with the music as she related the story, a triumph of feminist pacifism over a power-and-grief-crazed tyrant.
Here’s where things got crazy, and not because the orchestra and Schram weren’t locked in, because they were. When the narration was audible, the effect was a refreshing change from, say, flipping through the program like you might do with a paperback edition of Shakespeare at Shakespeare in the Park to follow along with the plotline. Trouble is, it wasn’t always, and this was neither the fault of the orchestra – which Bernard kept on a steady, dynamic pace through the work’s famously austere, ambered quasi-orientalisms – nor Schram either. The problem was that the speakers she was running through were placed too close to the stage, and facing the crowd rather than, say, facing each further back, along the sidelines where sonic competition with the mighty group onstage wouldn’t have been an issue. And this wouldn’t even have been a factor had the orchestra been playing Jazz at Lincoln Center or Carnegie Hall, both venues where they’ve performed before with richly good results.
The Park Avenue Chamber Symphony’s next concert is December 6 at 3 PM at Rose Theatre at Jazz at Lincoln Center, focusing on a theme of innovation and paradigm shifts, pairing Gershwin’s Concerto in F with pianist Ted Rosenthal alongside Bartok’s challenging, high-voltage Concerto for Orchestra.