The Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra's concert Saturday night was a relatively good performance of an intriguing program that could have been played in just a slightly more inspired fashion. The orchestra, under conductor Yames Yannatos, gave a generally spirited performance of Britten, Gershwin and Mussorgsky. Soloist John Melnyk's performance of the Gershwin Piano Concerto in F was a fine combination of control and verve which highlighted the evening. But the feeling and dynamic playing which a work such as "Pictures at an Exhibition" can evoke even in its less energetic passages did not always appear in what otherwise was a well-executed, if sometimes less than provocative concert.
The sensitivity with which the orchestra performed Benjamin Britten's Suite on English Folk Tunes carried through most of the concert. The suite, in three parts, was delivered in all its interesting orchestration, especially in the dialogues between the timpani and the winds, and in the passages in which the strings play while the remaining players are silent.
In "Cakes and Ale," the violins conveyed the lilting melodies convincingly, although they sometimes sounded muddy. The restrained notes of the strings in "Hankin Booby" constrasted interestingly with the sudden intrusions of the tympani; the orchestra's evocative and controlled playing in this second part was particularly fine and beautiful. The lyrical elegance which suffuses Britten's work appeared most notably in the last part, "Hunt the Squirrel," in which conductor Yannatos had the players emphasize nicely the passages of the strings vying against each other.
Soloist Melnyk, winner of this year's HRO concerto competition, teamed with the orchestra in a fine performance of Gershwin's Piano Concerto in F. Melnyk's confident playing brought a luster to the interesting and varied passages of this work. His lucid style contrasted unfortunately with the orchestra's occasionally less than clear playing, but the rendering was fine on the whole, particularly in its relentless last stages.
The concerto's first movement Allegro signalled some of the unusual, if dubious instrumentation which Gershwin wrote into the work. Elegant piano flurries, which Melnyk delivered with consummate clearness and excitement, seemed more than once gratuitously marred by chopping sounds from the tympani. But Gershwin's orchestration is extolled as clever or charming by many; there's no point in carping about something which many people inveterately enjoy. The performance of such unusual sections and of the rest of the piece was usually quite exciting, due in large part to the pianist's resounding and sensitive execution. The orchestra was particularly effective in the Allegro, when it merely supported Melnyk nicely in his swift gentle passages.
Although the orchestra sometimes seemed uninspired during the evening, there was no dragging feeling in the last two movements. Melnyk's acutely sensitive solo passages were matched by the orchestra's dramatic surges, held together by Yannatos. Shifting smoothly from soft piano stretches to rousing tuttis, the orchestra and soloist cooperated perfectly to make the sudden contrasts quite striking. Similarly, the concluding Allegro agitato was quick and smooth, all the more effective because of the nice transitions from piano to ensemble. Melnyk's and the orchestra's playing were especially forceful and resolute right from the beginning. Indeed, if at any time during the evening there was particularly an air of relentless fine playing, it was in the third movement of the Gershwin. It was crisp and swift as the piano clashed with the bass drum and some less conventional timpani. After startling soft and loud passages, the performance ended convincingly in an impressive surge.
When in February, 1874, Mussorgsky was encouraged to write a piece describing some art works appearing as a collection in St. Petersburg, "Pictures at an Exhibition," for piano, was the result. The work, which Debussy said "will leave an indelible impression," appears more often in Ravel's transcription for orchestra.
The HRO's performance did not always sound as enraptured or inspiring as it might have. Of course, the brass in the familiar opening "Promenade" and "Gnomus" effectively blurted out the image of the exhibition and the composer's ambling from picture to picture. But until near the final "Hut on Fowl's Leg" and "Great Gate of Kiev," the performance seemed a bit weighted down and torpid in parts. The quick changes of mood in the "Promenades," with the horn, winds and violins heralding a new picture, were well enough evoked. But in certain spots, such as the high-pitched "Il Vecchio Castello," the Orchestra seemed tame.
In parts where the score calls for playing which is meant to be more lyrical than majestic, the group soundedvery fine. The soft chimes of the triangle in "Tuileries" played nicely against the winds, harp, horns and strings, and the tuba burst forth with round tones most of the time in the sad "Bydlo" describing a cart driver trudging along with his oxen. "Ballet of the Hatching Chicks" fared better than "Limoges" and "Catacombae," in which the brass were not as sharp as required.
The full orchestra renewed in vigor in the final two images, conveying nicely the alternately sprightly and solemn tones and then rushingimpressively into "The Great Gate of Kiev," the famous climax. The gate itself was designed to commemorate the Czar's escape from an 1866 bombing, and was ornately depicted in the exhibition painting; hence the bells, gong, pounding drums and full orchestra which close the work in thrilling fashion. The orchestra, although seeming now a bit too fast in parts, ended the work with a befiting clamor of vying instruments, sounding like a celebration and evoking the patent majesty of Ravel's orchestration.