At Sanders Theatre Friday Night
Any comments on the HRO concert must start with a paean to the program. Professional orchestras seldom pass the two hour mark these days, leaving the listener with a vaguely unsatisfied feeling. And at least one of the selections on the program is usually a chestnut that every member of the orchestra could play standing on his head. Both for the length and content the HRO program was a delight.
The high point of the evening was the performance of Hindemith's symphony Mathis der Maler, made up of three sections from his rarely performed opera on the life of Grunewald. Intonation is a major problem in Hindemith. Chords follow one another in the most improbable succession; for the results to be intelligible, nearly every chord must be tuned up separately, and the musicians must have rehearsed it enough to remember what those unorthodox progressions sound like. It takes a lot of involvement and intelligence to play Hindemith--it's impossible to bomb through it.
Conductor James Yannatos gave the score an energetic and dramatic reading, and the playing was impressively unanimous. The difficult opening of the second movement was phrased without a slip-up. The massive chords that abound in this work were not splattered from one end of Sanders to the other, but placed with such precision that the audience was left stunned by the impact of the finale.
The winds and percussion played extremely well, but the brasses had intonation problems, and an occasional crack. Only in some of the exposed passages of the third movement did the strings show what was probably the effect of too little practice outside of rehearsals. The bulk of the piece was so well put together, it was a shame to hear even one section without all the notes.
Allan Vogel '65, co-winner of the Orchestra's annual Concerto Contest, played Telemann's E-minor Oboe Concerto. Vogel has an enormous, full sound. Although you can never cover oboes up entirely. I used to think of them as being the delicate members of the wind section. I had no idea that Sanders could ring from the sound of a single oboist. His tone was pleasant, and his technique nearly flawless. I wasn't bowled over, but his phrasing and musicianship were equally good. [I was surprised that he hadn't memorized his part.] Music of this period is very transparent. For this reason the orchestra's slightly ragged playing was noticeable, and it was just enough out of tune with the piano to set my teeth on edge.
Robert Levin '68, the other co-winner, played Mozart's D-minor Piano Concerto. He has an accomplished technique, and a light, sure touch that is admirably fitted for Mozart. But technique is not enough, and Levin supplied that extra something.
When Mozart wrote a single melody line for the piano, with the barest of oom-pahs for orchestral accompaniment, he was calling for every ounce of expression the pianist could muster, and exposing it to the audience. Levin rose to the challenge, with an admirable blend of feeling and control. Mozart is not as sure fire as Telemann, and it kept the orchestra on its toes. The celli were lithe and interesting on a part that can't have been intrinsically fascinating.
Two of Debussy's Nocturnes closed the program. They are excellent Debussy, but the omitted third, "Sirenes," is unparalleled in all of musical literature for sheer sensuality. Perhaps Yannatos had to cut it because of the length of the program; in that case, I wish he had waited until the next concert, and performed all three then.
"Nuages"--the first--was disappointing. This fragile piece must be played with a pull that will give it direction without destroying the mood. It was the absence of this force, plus a certain heaviness, that kept "Nuages" from coming off, though Carl Schlaikjer's luscious English horn solos helped to make up for the orchestra's deficiencies.
The drama and fire were back for "Fetes," and it was a great improvement. But the winds and brasses drowned the strings in their enthusiasm. The same problem arose in a previous performance of Mendelssohn's Midsummer Night's Dream. If the whole rear section of the orchestra is tooting along staccato, it must lighten to a man or it sounds like falling souffle.
An orchestra member complained last year of the new director's ambitious plans: "He'll never get the HRO to play that." But it's not the same HRO this year. It's substantially larger and better. And Yannatos, who took over this fall, has given it spirit, a feat not to be underestimated in any orchestra. For with spirit comes unanimity, and with unanimity comes the impressive control that Yannatos exerts over a group of players, not subservient to his will, but gladly making music with him.
"With a little give on all our parts, we can continue to bring these things off," is the way he put it, and I hope they continue to give concerts as good as Friday's.