Last Friday the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra, under the direction of Dr. James Yannatos, opened its 190th season with an admirably diverse and contemporary program: Hindemith's Symphonic Metamorphoses on the Themes of Carl Maria von Weber, the premiere of Yannatos Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra, performed by the Mendelssohn String Quartet, and Dvorak's Symphony No. 9 "From the New World."
The performance of the Dvorak maintained a strong forward momentum, the tempi in all but the second movement appropriately quick and flowing. The tight sforzandi that are so characteristic of this work were attacked consistently and with amazing precision. Subtle changes in tempo within movements were elegantly executed, as well as dramatic changes in dynamics, moving easily between thundering chords and delicate melodies. Particularly notable were the passionate development in the opening movement, the excellent phrasing of the slower second movement and the move to the overwhelming climax in the finale.
The piece isolates colors of the orchestra, either in solo or choir, allowing for great contrasts in instrumentation and texture. The winds throughout were exceptional: the extended English horn solo of the slow second movement was technically flawless, delicate and expressive and balanced perfectly with the orchestra. The third movement, with its searing if not overbearing triangle tremolos, was carried by the performance of the timpani. When loud, as in the first and last movements, the brass was sharp and tight; when delicate, as in the opening chorale of the second movement, they showed amazing sensitivity to dynamics and melodic contour. The most memorable moment of the performance, entirely by virtue of Yannatos' direction, was the amazing melodic truncations in the second movement. Following the return of the English horn melody, the first two chairs of each of the strings, muted, play the melody, yet are abruptly cut off twice. The ensuing silence, held in a fermata, was of great dramatic effect. This quiet and understated phrase, a mere five measures of the piece, was perhaps the most captivating of the evening.
Hindemith's Symphonic Metamorphosis, though a straightforward piece, is an amazingly densely scored work. It is to the orchestra's credit that it managed a solid performance while maintaining subtle differentiations between foreground and background material.
Such balance was achieved in the second movement, where dense triplet runs, exchanged around the orchestra, blanket the background with a literal whirlwind. Where the low strings were a little muddy and understated, the winds were articulate and perfectly balanced. When the runs finally arrived in the upper strings the execution was clear and precise. After a climax, which perhaps could have been heightened, a cannon in the brass section follows. Here, with staggered entrances, the strength of the brass choir was fully exploited, each voice clear and sonorous.
As in the Dvorak, the score provided ample opportunity to demonstrate the orchestra's varied colors. Especially striking was the percussion ensemble of the second movement, consisting of triangle, tom-tom, snare drum, cymbal, wood block, gong and chimes. After an initial statement, the ensemble returned to a perfectly executed dynamic rise and fall. In the third movement, the flute performed the solo melody effectively with a sort of rubato, freely suspended over the rest of the orchestra.
As a soloist of a concerto, the string quartet is a curious innovation, placing an entire choir of instruments against the orchestra. This form poses some practical problems: the challenge is making the soloists truly stand apart from the orchestral strings. The concerto traditionally accomplishes this in three ways: alternation of solo and orchestral passages; dynamic, registral, and rhythmic isolation; and use of the instrument's individual tone color. This last method, in the case of the string quartet, is the hardest: the quartet's tone color is easily blanketed by the larger orchestral strings. The genre of concerto depends upon contrast between soloist and orchestra. Yannatos' Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra, despite moments of great beauty and intensity, often lacked sufficient contrast to fulfill expectations.
The work, cast in three movements, was performed without pause. Despite the contrasting tempi given for each movement (allegro, adagio con moto, allegro giocoso), there was little sense of actual formal differentiation--partly due to the tempo changes within a given movement, partly to the overall consistency, almost to a fault, of the instrumental texture. The texture was dominated by the churning lines of the strings, the quartet often moving in the same manner but isolated registrally. Added to this was the occasional punctuation and melodic quote announced by the remaining choirs of the orchestra, nearly always regulated to a marginal role. The percussion, and occasionally the brass, were often the sole indicators of points of arrival. The end of the first movement was announced with punctuation from the brass and suspendedcymbal rolls. The third movement was delineated by the use of tambourine, and likewise concluded with punctuation from the glockenspiel and brass.
As a result, the overall texture was very homogeneous, the colors of the orchestra were used sparingly. Rarely were the other choirs treated independently. Even the quartet itself was overly consistent in its color: passionate lines in the upper register nearly dominated the work. Clearly this was necessary in order to isolate the quartet from the orchestral strings. Yet the contrasting colors of pizzicato, double stops, trills, tremolos, sul ponticello or sul tasto bowings, if present, were far too subtle to stand out.
Yannatos' treatment of melody seemed stratified between two extremes: the endless, flowing melodies of the quartet and strings, and the terse melodic fragments delivered by the remainder of the ensemble, particularly the glockenspiel and the brass. The program notes describe the use of a principal theme and motives from both Bach chorales and Beethoven Quartets op. 135 and 74. However, these melodic fragments, regardless of their origin, sounded only as quotes, isolated from the dominant texture. What was lacking was any real sense of interaction between these two melodic worlds. The program describes the principal theme as being part of a narrative-like development. Yet such development, on a first listening, was far too subtle to be discernible.
The passages for the quartet alone were interesting and well executed--for example, the introduction of the quartet through staggered entrances, often with some degree of imitation. Both the quality of the writing and the superb performance of the Mendelssohn String Quartet contributed to the excellent rendering of the polyphony. The upper-register work of the 'cello in the first movement and the brief 'cello solo of the second movement were both particularly remarkable. This solo leads into an extended passage for the quartet alone, a cadenza of sorts, featuring some of the most demanding parts of the work. The arrival in the third movement was a particularly moving example of the successful combination of quartet and orchestra. At a slower tempo and accompanied by the low strings, the quartet, in flowing independent melodies, produced perhaps the most expressive moment of the work.
The interaction between the orchestra and the quartet, however, too often failed to achieve the kind of dialogue expected of a concerto. Certainly this expectation can be abandoned. Yet even without it, the piece was often too homogeneous, the sense of forward motion and development too difficult to discern.