at Sanders Friday night
Friday night the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra set out to please everybody. For those who think music stopped in 1880, there was Beethoven's Symphony No. 1 in C. For those who think it began in 1923, the orchestra played the Five Bagatelles for Orchestra by contemporary composer Gunther Schuller. Then, for those who haven't accepted the dogma that the nineteenth century doesn't exist, there was every not of Tschaikovsky's Symphony No. 6 in B minor, the "Pathetique."
People usually come to hear the HRO parti pris, but Friday night the orchestra surprised even its most faithful adherents. The first movement of the Beethoven exhibited a string section that was competent and solidly in control despite purported despoliation by this year's Bach Society Orchestra. Under conductor James Yannatos, the orchestra played with just the right kind of classical clarity and transparence. These qualities are more difficult to master than the rhythmic complexities of contemporary music or the pyrotechnics of late nineteenth-century orchestral style. All the elements which are so important in Beethoven--dynamic contrast, elegance of phrasing, orchestral balance--were consciously and sensitively achieved by orchestra and conductor. For the first time in three years, the HRO actually played subtly.
Gunther Schuller's Five Bagatelles, sandwiched as they were between two chestnuts, could not help but be a musical gourmet's delight. Written in a disjunct, motivic style that borrows almost as much from jazz as from serial technique, they presented problems of cohesion and continuity similar to those of the Dallapiccola 'Cello Concerto performed by the HRO last spring. This time, however, the orchestra succeeded. Rather than struggling frantically through the notes, the players were in sufficient control of the music to interpret it and make it come alive.
It is a sure sign of musical anarchy if everything in a composition comes out sounding the same. This is especially if the music is new and unfamiliar. But Schuller's Bagaetelles are full of contrasts--dynamic, textural, rhythmic--and the orchestra brought them out vividly and strikingly. Here the orchestra received a bit of unplanned assistance from the Cambridge Fire Department. At the end of the Third Bagatelle, the rising wail of the fire siren coincided exactly with the solo 'cello's ascending glissando. It was probably the only time 'cellist Martha Babcock smiled during a concert.
Tschaikovsky's Symphonie "Pathetique" is something else. This is one of those pieces that an image-conscious musician will only listen to when he is sure no one else is looking. But there it was, blasting away in amply filled Sanders Theatre, and there we all were, guiltily and depravedly enjoying it.
Yannatos and his orchestra performed the symphony without condescension. By treating it as legitimate music, giving it as much attention and respect as the other two works, they saved the Tschaikovsky from the disaster that is inevitable when it is played as camp. The famous Allegro con grazia in five-four was captivating rather than sentimental (bravo 'cellos!), and the rousing march-like third movement was rousing instead of vulgar.
The orchestra was a lot more ragged in the Tschaiskovsky than they had been in the first half of the program. This is partially because the symhpony's severe technical difficulty, but partially a result of pure carelessness.
In general intonation tended to get worse as a piece progressed, and I found in myself the unusual desire that the orchestra retune. In all three works, the orchestra tended to run out of steam in the second or third movement. Each piece started out very much in control, full of life and interpretive detail, and then gradually slithered into slippiness and insecurity.
But make no mistake: this year's HRO is a very different orchesra from its predecessors. Technically it is not appreciablly better, but this year the group has all those qualities that musicians prize most highly. There is dynamic control that can achieve a real piano, and a multi-levelled sound far beyond the crude polarity of loud and soft. Gone are the days when the winds thought so much of themselves and so little of the strings that the latter were helpless before the barrage of their sound. This year the strings are playing out and assuming their proper role with well-deserved confidence. In spite of flaws the HRO produces a good sound, with a greater sense of ensemble than many professional orchestras.
This year's HRO is doing something with the music. The difference between Tschaikovsky and last year's Brahms third was phenomenal. Instead of plowing dutifully through the notes at a nondescript mezzo volume, they are seizing the music by guts and expressing it. The tacit thought behind their playing is no longer "see what I can do," but rather "see what I can say." It's about time.