An Auspicious Glimpse of This Year’s Greenwich Village Orchestra Season
The buzz at the reception after Sunday’s Greenwich Village Orchestra concert was electric. On one hand, that’s to be expected after a show full of thrills like this one was. But people were still raving about the season’s first program, one veteran concertgoer venturing so far as to call that particular performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 the best she’d ever seen. “I keep telling people, you can spend a hundred and fifty bucks for the New York Philharmonic…or you can drop twenty bucks here, and it’s every bit as good,” said another. Much as Alan Gilbert has done very good things with the Philharmonic, one thing he hasn’t – to be fair, this probably isn’t part of his job description – is to lower ticket prices. The cheapest advertised seats to a recent performance of Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances – a suite that’s a lot of fun but hardly the composer’s best work – were forty bucks. Suggested donation to the GVO is $20, $10 for seniors and kids. And afterward you can schmooze, grab a glass of wine or a snack if you’re so inclined and bask in the magic of what you’ve just witnessed.
And the GVO draws a crowd that’s more committed and critical than most, an artsy bunch, many of them musicians themselves. They’re considerably younger, more diverse and more representative of the population of this city as a whole, compared to your typical blue-haired Lincoln Center audience. This time out there were plenty of families and kids along with the expected slate of retired folks and just average everyday people. If you’d put everyone who’d been at this performance n the same train, you’d never guess that they were all coming from the same concert. What did they see that made them so excited?
Music Director Barbara Yahr led them through Verdi’s Forza del Destino Overture to get things started. It’s not heavy or particularly profound music, but it is a way to get a quick read on how ready an orchestra and conductor are to shift on a dime, from lush and sweeping, to lively and balletesque, or to wistful and pensive, and this performance quickly reminded how friendly and intuitive the long relationship between this orchestra and conductor continues to be.
Baritone Jesse Blumberg joined them for Mahler’s Songs of the Wayfarer, which posed different challenges, again an easy barometer for how well an ensemble can rise to meet them. The song cycle is typical Mahler in that it uses the entirety of the sonic spectrum, meaning that everyone in the group has to be on their toes, and they were. Especially Blumberg. There’s a point in this lovelorn suite where the singer really has to reach back and belt over the orchestra as the angst rises, and Yahr made it clear that she wasn’t going to sacrifice any passion in the dynamics of her interpretation, but Blumberg made clear that his destino was to go to the well for all the extra forza required. As a bonus – something that often happens at GVO concerts – the more somber, subtle Mahler song that followed, Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen (I am lost to the world), was a surprise, not originally on the program.
The piece de resistance was the best performance of Richard Strauss’ Death and Transfiguration that this blog has ever witnessed – and there have been several. Some will disagree with this opinion, but it’s the composer’s greatest work. In the hands of this orchestra, it became the most dynamic and explosive tone poem ever written, complete with a member of the violin section providing an informative reading of the poetry that inspired it. It was here that the thematic sense of this concert – the GVO loves theme shows – became most vivid, an uneasy and bittersweet late-life reflection heavy on dubious choices and missed opportunities. The confidently pulsing orchestration early on was steady and suspenseful, voicing the waves of regret as the narrative went on, all the more potently affecting in contrast to the silky calm as the strings took the piece out with a pillowy touch. The Greenwich Village Orchestra has been a downtown fixture for decades and has a devoted following, but this season looks like the best in years. The orchestra’s next performance, December 13 at 3 PM, is their annual interactive family concert, featuring the children of the Actionplay chorus along with works by Bizet, Beethoven and Richard Strauss.