What was it like to hear Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony for the umpteenth time? Seated within the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony last night at the DiMenna Center, unlike any other. Placing musicians on the perimeter of an audience is both an old theatrical trick and an experience common to anyone who’s ever seen a marching band or a drum corps competition. But placing a crowd within various sections of a symphony orchestra is something new and exciting.
Conductor David Bernard was candid about the challenges posed by working with such an unorthodox configuration. “I found myself looking for people and not finding them,” he grinned during a lively Q&A with the crowd after the performance. “And you looked back at me,” he told the audience, “And said, ‘Don’t look at me, I don’t come in yet.’”
This audience was a particularly sophisticated and engaged one. Concertgoers marveled at the difficulty of sustaining vibrato, especially in unison with an entire string section; that the players, many of them estranged from the usual stage plot, had to be especially on their toes for cues; and the simple fact that a symphony orchestra performance requires several dozen musicians to be simultaneously at the top of their game, in sync. Compounding the basic challenge of pulling off a famous Beethoven symphony that pretty much every classical fan knows well, if not by heart, was the slight doppler effect created by having musicians separated so far from each other – an aspect that the audience was aware of. That the orchestra was sensitive to such minute rhythmic shifts and responded as well as they did speaks to the quality of this ensemble’s musicianship.
Bernard has boundless enthusiasm and can’t resist sharing it, a useful quality considering that he was wearing his impresario’s hat as well as his conductor’s one. Getting to watch him from the perspective of an orchestra member reinforced earlier perceptions: his relationship to the musicians was a constant push-pull, a friendly but firm “Gimme!” and then a beaming “yessss” when the orchestra delivered. Playing music is like acting; you have to trust the people you’re onstage with, and Bernard’s unassailable confidence has obviously filtered down to this crew.
What was the experience like? Those in the audience who were willing to cop to not having seen much classical music (a lot wouldn’t admit it), unsurprisingly, seemed the most thrilled, as people tend to be after their first exposure to this symphony. From the perspective of having grown up with it – first a comfortable friend wafting in from WQXR atop the family fridge, then later being transfixed by it both in concert and by close, uninterrupted listening on a Sony walkman (remember those?) – this was still a revelation.
First of all, depending on where audience members were situated, certain voices would be elevated or would even drown out others. One element that came into stunning focus was how subtly yet dramatically Beethoven shifts meters. Another was the sophistication of the counterpoint (many in the crowd marveled at that). Bernard addressed the grimness and black humor of the opening movement by explaining that he saw it as a relentless tug-of-war between energy and restraint, one that should leave both performers and listeners spent by the time it’s over. But the rest of the symphony is often uproariously funny. That buffoonish faux-patriotic march in the second movement, the point where an elegant waltz suddenly becomes a stilted Punch-and-Judy theme, and the shlemiel sentry of a bassoon on the perimeter, crying wolf…or maybe not? It was hard to resist laughing out loud, and disrupting the musicians. What was more impressive was how the orchestra managed to get through those passages, and similar LMAO moments, with a straight face.
Taking the audience out of their element and challenging them to watch, and listen, literally immersed in the music, could become this orchestra’s shtick…or at least one among many. It could make them very, very popular. One older gentleman in the crowd explained that at last he understood the thrill his son experienced onstage with his rock band. This was like being in that band, multiplied a dozen times over. After all, who wouldn’t want to be onstage performing Beethoven’s Fifth?
The Park Avenue Chamber Symphony’s next concert is at 8 PM on May 21 at All Saints Church on 60th St. just west of First Ave. featuring Elgar’s Cello Concerto with the fantastic Inbal Segev as soloist, plus Mendelssohn’s Scottish Symphony.. It’s not known how traditionally or untraditionally Bernard might stage it. That prospect alone makes it enticing.