Andrew Druckenbrod | Guest Reviewer
In all the traditional arts, there may be no greater a misnomer today than the accepted designation that classical music is tranquil — that it is suitable stuff for relaxation and the background. Anyone who has listened to a Beethoven symphony, Verdi opera or Stravinsky ballet on earphones certainly knows that isn’t the case. Classical music is the realm of drama, of tremendous contrast, of tension and release.
I would expect to hear excellent counterexamples of similar modern misunderstandings were this issue brought up over coffee on the grounds of Chautauqua Institution. But on a night such as last Saturday at the Amphitheater, it seemed an axiom.
Led by guest conductor Grant Cooper, the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra offered a program bursting with emotion and profundity, excitement and sorrow.
Edward Elgar’s Cello Concerto is a work that commands all of these states and more. The British composer’s response to the unimaginable horror of the Great War, the piece is a four-movement journey through a sometimes desolate, sometimes thundering and sometimes nostalgic landscape. It requires a soloist who can bear the weight of Elgar’s tragic utterance with nary a break. Cellist Julie Albers was more than up for the task.
Many a cellist launches into the famous introduction of the work and the sobbing first theme that follows with everything they have. In contrast, Albers was measured, allowing for buildup as the composition develops and audible reflection as the theme returns at the conclusion. I was particularly taken by how she risked pianissimo despite the vagaries of an outdoor venue. She almost could be said to have addressed the part in more classical terms than the sometimes overbearing approach inspired by that “other” female cellist.
Not that Albers’ tone lacked emotion or substance; it was that her phrasing was restrained in a manner that let the concerto’s subtleties speak.
While she brought forth a deep, mahogany tone from her instrument, she was most impressive on the A string. Whether hitting harmonics, singing lyrically or climbing one of the most exciting scales in all of music (in the first movement) she was a maven on this highest and lightest cello string. Try concentrating on much of anything else when electric playing like this courses through the night air.
For his part, Cooper served the role of a conduit as much as a conductor here, ably connecting the orchestra to the soloist. But at key moments, he took over, urging the ensemble in sonic swells, especially in the final movement. He was particularly adept at guiding soloist and tutti through some tricky transitions. It’s refreshing to see a conductor who is economical with gestures — leading the orchestra instead of appealing to the audience. Most orchestra veterans will tell you they’d prefer emphasis and direction only when needed over the flailing arms of many maestros.
What followed, Johannes Brahms’ Symphony No. 4 (like the Elgar, in haunting E minor), was no less an intense, if a more formal, experience.
It is much to ask a festival orchestra performing in an outdoor setting to capture the epic stature of this work, and the musicians struggled at times to gain this. Intonation was an issue at times, but musicality was not in question. Cooper enhanced the latter with a view to the large-scale. A prime example came in the first movement, when he slowly moved his free hand in a sweeping motion to bring out the arching phrases.
His tempo in the finale was a bit fast for my liking. But this creative variations-on-a theme that Brahms crafted in the old style of a passacaglia (passé in the late 19th century when he wrote the symphony) — admittedly is served well by this approach. Going too slowly can cause some of the statements to be bogged down.
There is much to recommend in the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra, but the French horns and woodwinds came to the fore on Saturday. Brahms had a love of the rustic yet noble timbre of the horn, and the CSO’s section was up to the task. The clarinets had an attractive, mellow tone, and the oboist offered fetching colors.
The latter also was the case in the opener, Byron Adams’ “Capriccio Concertante,” which premiered in 1991. At the center of the work, the oboist led the orchestra in an orchestration of the famous hymn, “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” with flowing phrasing. This hymn, or more accurately, the folk tune it uses known as “Nettleton,” pops up in the middle of this unfocused piece and, as is the case in many recent compositions, works that quote a well-known piece, the hymn is by far its best part. Keep in mind, however, that my response is from having heard the work only once, which is never enough to come to a definite conclusion. But subsequent hearings aren’t going to change the score from opening with a limpid call-and-response between triangle and bassoon.
Perhaps the best argument at the Amphitheater against the prevailing view of orchestral music in today’s culture as quaint and quiet was that this concert, which began relatively late at 8:15 p.m., held the audience in its grasp the entire time. That’s more than most movies can boast. So, let’s put to bed the notion that classical music is good to fall asleep to, and instead celebrate its compelling and often turbulent nature.
Andrew Druckenbrod is Classical Music Critic of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and teaches at the University of Pittsburgh.