Last Friday, one short month after their Halloween concert, the Harvard Radcliffe Orchestra (HRO) tackled another ambitious program at Sanders Theatre. The concert showcased the HRO’s musical maturity, as the orchestra effectively delivered three pieces in radically different styles. The continuing creativity of conductor James Yannatos, who is near the end of his long tenure, was also on display; he premiered his sixth symphony.
The overture to “Oberon,” an opera by Carl Maria von Weber, was first, and HRO’s rendition was both articulate and spirited. Rebecca L. Gruskin ’11 opened the piece with a solemn, clear horn call that, in the opera, would signal the beginning of the Elf-King’s quest to save the hero, Huan. Gruskin was impeccable throughout the evening, and when the call returned, it was as clear but more optimistic, fitting the music perfectly. The strings were agile both dynamically and technically, evoking a mystical landscape, and the winds marched solidly behind them. A controlled build-up led to an exciting conclusion.
Yannatos’s Symphony No. 6, “A Lear Symphony,” followed the Weber. Written in two concise movements, the piece was meant to “suggest the emotional high points” of Shakespeare’s King Lear rather than narrate the story, according to Yannatos’s program notes. David Kravitz, in his powerful baritone voice, sang selections of the text over a tragic and unsettled orchestral sound.
The first movement depicted King Lear’s descent into madness, with waves of brass and timpani looming over twisting dissonances. Kravitz sang confidently, spanning large intervals with ease, and the orchestra maintained a sense of disturbed panic without drowning out the voice. The movement ended with an unexpected, troubled calm: the orchestral sound suddenly evaporated with a consonant but inconclusive chord of harmonics in the violins.
In the second movement, described by Yannatos as Lear’s lamentation of his misfortune, the king begs his daughter Cordelia for forgiveness. The movement was immediately less agitated and more sad than the first. Trumpets and winds pierced the somber mood with high notes like pangs of distress, and as King Lear began to see more clearly (“Where am I? Fair daylight?”), the strings evoked the confused insight of the madman. When Lear pleaded to Cordelia, fleeting major chords appeared like glimmers of light, and then the movement ended with another uncertain evaporation of sound. Singer and orchestra performed the movement with the same subtlety and seriousness that characterized Weber’s piece from almost two centuries earlier.
After intermission, the orchestra performed Gustav Mahler’s “Das Lied von der Erde” (“The Song of the Earth”). The piece sets six translated Chinese poems, sung by a tenor (Charles Blandy) and an alto (Jamie Van Eyck), against the large scale of a symphony. The playing suffered slightly from the limited rehearsal time between concerts, sometimes lacking the complete control that is a trademark of HRO, but the orchestra still delivered a moving performance of the classic work.
The first movement was notable for the bittersweet melodic lines of the violins and the mysterious shimmer caused by the harps. The third, dance-like movement was sparkling, anchored by steady percussion and vibrant, well-enunciated singing by Blandy and contrasted well with the delicate transparency of the fourth movement. The long final movement, with challenging changes of tempo, sometimes came apart, as the orchestra seemed unsure and occasionally almost confused. Still, the movement (and the entire piece) was often transporting, ranging from a reluctant, fateful march to a bitter, resistant drone of the cellos under an expressive alto line.
The final notes achieved a profound serenity, closing a dynamic, sometimes chaotic, but characteristically enjoyable HRO concert.