Review: Perick leads orchestra in night of ‘quiet dynamics’

Review by Leah Harrison

Amanda Mainguy | Staff Photographer
Guest conductor Christof Perick leads the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra in their performance in the Amphitheater Tuesday. Harrison

When a conductor demonstrates historical knowledge by adjusting the scope of expression to accommodate the composer’s — what a different kind of conductor might call restraint — the audience is in for a treat and an education.

Tuesday night, guest conductor Christof Perick provided such an experience for the Amphitheater audience as he led the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra in works by Weber, Strauss and Mozart. Perick is the seventh of eight finalists vying for the CSO’s music directorship and will conduct the ensemble again tonight.

Opening with the overture to Weber’s Oberon, the ensemble’s incredible control was immediately evident, especially in Roger Kaza’s pure and silky horn solo answered by the strings; the pitch changed from horn to strings smoothly, almost without detection. This is an orchestra that listens to itself and achieves a supple yet precise sound as a result — a lamentably rare trait even in professional ensembles. In this piece especially, but also throughout the program, impressive levels of quiet dynamics were reached.

Perick was introduced as having an affinity for Strauss, a truth proven in his confident display during “Don Juan,” a dramatic tone poem written in 1888. For Strauss, the possibilities for emotion were stronger and more robust than they would have been for Weber, a principle with which Perick is obviously familiar. Instantly, the higher highs and lower lows outshone the Weber in scope. This lush, romantic piece delivers an ocean of drama, and Perick channeled the sorcerer’s apprentice as he boldly gestured for each section to bring their contribution to the aural forefront. Spectacular brass moments and tumultuous stormy sections took the piece from programmatic to cinematic; clearly, Perick has a gift with narrative in music. “Don Juan” seems like it will end with boisterous grandeur, but a heightened pause leads to suspicious, growling trills in the strings pointing to something ominous.

Mozart’s Symphony No. 36 took us back to 1783, when musical ideas — dramatic or otherwise — were written within the confines of order and balance. With dignity and discipline, the orchestra accordingly turned down the heat. While Mozart has a reputation for combination of irreverence and intellect — often displayed in his quicker compositions — his adagios are equally stirring. In the second movement, the orchestra explored a rich breadth within a measured and withheld form, overwhelming with beauty.

While Perick’s interpretation of these pieces provided a view of the culture and conventions their composers experienced, some of the shaping and phrasing that makes Mozart’s work exciting was missing, despite being in the vein of a restrained, 18th-century performance. There were moments when I wanted more. This hardly detracts, though, from a truly superb performance. The CSO and its audience would be well attended by a conductor who noticeably prepares for a precise and intellectual performance.

Leah Harrison is a writer and editor specializing in the arts. She is currently Spoleto Festival USA’s institutional writer and holds a master’s degree in musicology from The Florida State University and a second master’s in arts journalism from Syracuse University. Leah was The Chautauquan Daily’s opera reporter in 2012.