THE GRAND SCALE on which the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra traditionally operates was even grander than usual last Friday night: its first concert of the year boasted the most famous of the Beethoven symphonies, one of the best-known contraltos around and one of the most popular works of Charles Ives in the year of his centennial. The orchestra handled this overambitious program admirably, and the strain didn't show until the end of the evening.
Guest soloist Maureen Forrester gave a superbly dramatic performance of Mahler's "Songs of a Wayfarer," in an interpretation which emphasized the lyric, folk-song quality of Mahler's melodies. Her rich, sometimes deliberately harsh low register is a magnificent and constant surprise. The alternating sensuousness and despair which she brought to the fourth Song were suggestive of the lilting, tragic songs of Kurt Weil, which also have roots in German-Austrian folk melody. The orchestra--particularly its excellent wind section--gave her exceptionally sensitive support with clean, sharp attacks and supple phrasing. Forrester's spirited but somewhat less exciting performance of Mozart's concert aria "Non Piu di Fiore" was complemented by a beautifully fluid clarinet solo by one of the aces of HRO's wind section, David Cass.
The opening work, Ives's "Three Places in New England," began with uncertain attacks and a messy climax in the first movement, but a rousing, properly chaotic second movement captured well the big-ban-sound of "Putnam's Camp." The third movement, "The Housatonic at Stock-bridge," which can so easily degenerate into a meaningless mess of tone clusters, was a flowing and coherent whole. The orchestra deserves great credit here for a remarkably controlled performance of the most technically difficult work on the program.
PROGRAMMING BEETHOVEN'S Fifth Symphony was a move designed to fill the house, and to give everyone--both players and audience--a good time. In these respects it succeeded. But because of the difficulty of the Ives and the top-priority commitment to the soloist, this great warhorse must have received the least rehearsal time, and it showed. The necessity of placing it last on the program--when the players would be most tired--introduced further complications, yet the occasional ensemble problems, rushed tempi and brass bloopers only partially detracted from the pleasure of hearing this symphony performed live, with conductor James Yannatos' energetic tempi and the big, full sound that the HRO can always muster.
The good news about the HRO this year is the consistent integrity of its programming. Last year's management tried to lure audiences with several trivial pieces--such as Dukas's "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" of Walt Disney fame--which it mistook for crowd pleasers. The new management has dispensed with such condescension and every work which has been scheduled so far is worth hearing. Like last year, the HRO is performing well. The difficulties which arose in the last concert, presumably from musical overcommitment, should be rectified in the upcoming programs, which seem to be of a more manageable scope.