Sunday, October 14, 2012

Greenwich Symphony Opens Season with the Music of Youth

The Greenwich Symphony opened its 54th season last night with a program that celebrated youth.

Mozart was 27 when he stopped in the Austrian town of Linz in 1783. He was travelling back to Vienna with his wife and stayed with some wealthy friends of the family. He wrote his Linz symphony in only four days. Beethoven was 26 years old when he wrote his Piano Concerto No. 1, and Ravel wrote his original music for “Ma mère l'oye” (My Mother Goose) as a piano duet for Mimi and Jean Godebski who were age six and seven at the time.

“So much great classical music,” said the GSO conductor and music director David Gilbert, “is written by, and for, and is played by young people. Enjoy and marvel.”

It is not every day that an orchestral concert opens with a symphony, closes with a concerto, and has complete music for a ballet in the middle, and this event ran a little long, but the music was so well chosen and so well crafted by the orchestra that time flew.

The Linz Symphony is music built from phrases with sharp edges. The first movement has very few instances where two consecutive phrases have the same number of measures. This is music of prose rather than the measured flow of verse, and yet the content must sound effortless, delicate and poetic. 

Gilbert is good at Mozart. He kept the orchestra tilted forward so that phrases summed into larger structures that were clear and eloquent. He took the first movement repeat but not in the sonata form second and fourth movements. I liked the rustic Haydnesque stomp of the Menuetto, and the finale spoke with festivity.

We seldom get to hear the complete ballet music for Ma mère l'oye” so this performance was welcome. The preludes and transitions that the ballet music adds to the five familiar movements we hear in the suite develop the trappings of fantasy. They allow us to better enter the magical sound world of Ravel from our digitized time. 

The Linz Symphony used no flute or clarinets, so the color of the flutes that sound at the opening of the Prelude in the “Ma mère l'oye” ballet music were particularly vivid. The expanded percussion, English horn, contrabassoon, and celesta further opened the palate, and created an aural stimulation like a walk through Disneyland. Barbara Allen’s harp playing was particularly clean and vibrant, and the section strings found careful balances to close the work and leave us with a sense of wonderment in the “Fairy Garden.”

After intermission, pianist Angela Cheng joined the orchestra as soloist in the Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 1. She played the energized side of the music fast and bouncy with lively accents and chiseled figuration. But she played the first movement development with too much sound; it took too long to get the quieted magical texture that is so essential to this passage. Cheng played the infamous “third cadenza.” This is the longest of the three that Beethoven wrote for this work, and it was a perfect vehicle to showcase the intensity of her playing.   

“The virtuosic cadenza,” said Gilbert earlier from the stage, “reminds us of what Beethoven may have done at some of the parties and salons that he played where he hypnotized everybody by his incredible improvisations.” The concerto was well received.

The Greenwich Symphony succeeded. They played the music of youth with the wisdom of experience.

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