Bach Society Orchestra
Friday evening in Paine Hall
Conductor Bentley Layton chose a wise program for his chamber orchestra, and performed it with security, confidence, and a very welcome accuracy. Layton apparently did his work with the orchestra before the concert. Last minute attempts to save a sinking orchestra were totally absent from his podium performance; he infused the orchestral sound with the proper delicacy and care.
Three of the four compositions on the program were each highlights, and this suggests how remarkable the concert was. Understandably, the Bach Society Orchestra playing Bach's fourth Klavier concerto in A major was a fine show. Luise Vosgerchian, soloist and preceptor of music in the Department of Music, seized the concerto firmly in hand and gave it an energetic and clear performance. Miss Vosgerchian and conductor Layton worked together very closely; the taperings at the ends of phrases and changes in dynamics, for example, fitted together like fine-tolerance metal work. Although the second movement (Larghettoo) may have been a bit too fast, here Miss Vosgerchian and the orchestra produced a real sense of intimacy. A manly final Allegro brought the soloist, conductor, and orchestra their well-earned bravos.
No one expected an equally precise performance of Haydn's Symphony No.6, "Le Matin," since this work requires agility from the woodwinds and brass as well as the strings, and relies on soloists within the orchestra. But, in fact, the Haydn came off at least as well as the Bach. After a slightly sluggish start, Layton moved the orchestra onto the solid, fully-packed tone one looks for in a classical symphony. Layton followed what seems to be the current musical fashion and took all the repeats. Unfortunately, by repeating Haydn's musical joke in the last movement four times, he killed it rather dead. But the rest of the symphony lived. The second movement, taken at a good deliberate tempo, enjoyed the outstanding solo performance of Tison Street, concertmaster, as violin concertanto. Here, and in the fourth movement, Street gave truly professional performances: accurate, sure, and evocative of all the subtleties in the music. Marshall Brown, first cellist of the orchestra, played the violoncello concertanto. As they had all evening, the strings-notorious nomads in the wastelands of intonation-stayed right on the beaten path and made the symphony a joy.
The size of Layton's orchestra kept him from playing any Romantic works; the other half of Friday's brief program included works by Igor Stravinsky and Charles Ives. In its New England premiere, Stravinsky's Monumentum pro Gesualdo di Venosa received a bludgeoning the Bach Society had not intended to give it; someone in the orchestra arrived after the concert had begun. Naturally the counterpoint had strange empty spots. Monumentum, composed in 1960 on Gesualdo's four-hundredth birthday, is essentially an alteration for chamber music of three of Gesualdo's madrigals. Even if one makes allowances for what was missing on Friday, Stravinsky's version sounded sadly disjointed in comparison with the original vocal settings if the madrigals. Stravinsky achieves coloring effects-alternating strings and horns in block chords in the fourth movement, for example-but loses the feeling of flow beneath his startling harmonic changes. To juxtapose distantly related harmonies is no longer surprising, and becomes marvelous only when the voices making up the harmonies each appear very orderly. Stravinsky loses that component orderliness by shifting the voices from one set of instruments to another, again and again.
Much more successful were Charles Ives' three miniatures for chamber orchestra, The Rainbow (1914), The Pond (1906), and The Unanswered Question (1906). The first two are really instrumental solos, which Ives also composed as songs. In their accompaniments, lines slither around to transform the traditional harmonic basis into something quite live and active. In The Unanswered Question Ives exploits a favorite device of his, two independent ensembles. One, the muted strings, provides a constant background, labelled "the eternal silence of the Druids." The other, a few woodwinds, attempts to answer the question proposed by a solo trumpet. The woodwinds are only cued in by the conductor, but they play at a tempo independent of his; they must rely on each other for co-ordination. Preserving the sense of tentativeness, of irresolution, Layton took care to bring out the fine details of interpretation and gave these pieces as close to a perfect performance as one could hope for.
This year Layton is blessed with orchestra members who can handle solos unusually well. Anthony Greenwald, trumpet, carried the lyric line without faltering in the Ives. Pam Campbell, flute, Randy Havilind, bassoon, and Chris Atwood, bass, put over the jokes in and Haydn's symphony, while, as already noted, Tison Street and Marshall Brown delivered the concertanto solos.
The Bach Society Orchestra advertises at least two more concerts this year. The first is certainly a convincing argument for buying a season ticket.