The Park Avenue Chamber Symphony Stares Down a Hurricane and Wins
Sometimes facing a threat brings out the best in musicians. Knowing that they’d have to wrap up their concert before the subway shut down at seven in anticipation of the “Frankenstorm,” did the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony hurry their show yesterday on the Upper East Side? No: whatever tension they must have been feeling, they transcended. Which is what music is all about, right?
For those who’d grown up with the pieces on the program, it was like reconnecting with old friends after a long time away and noticing that they’ve obviously been working out and are in great shape. Between those two – Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony and Beethoven’s Emperor Piano Concerto – was a merry prankster who for all his clowning around turned out to be as deep if not deeper than the old friends. That was Richard Strauss’ Till Eulenspiegel.
Anyone who might have been introduced to the Schubert wafting from the radio over the kitchen table on, say, WQXR at dinner time was treated to a welcome rediscovery. And pity those hearing this for the first time here – they’re spoiled for life. Both movements were cinematic and bursting with energy: what a career Schubert would have had in the movies if he’d been born a century later! Conductor David Bernard drew a genuinely suspenseful anticipation from the low strings in the introduction, and likewise from the brass as the second movement made its way out of a lustrous gleam.
But the revelation on the bill was the Strauss. The composer was quoted as saying that he wanted to offend audiences with this, and it’s easy to see how that could have happened: in its own precise, Teutonic way, it’s a musical satire, a raised middle finger at some of the very same conventions that Strauss would cave to later in Ein Heldenleben and elsewhere. But that’s another story: this was the young Strauss being as much of a proto punk rocker as he could have been under the circumstances. The orchestra drew obvious relish from all the mockery: the snidely swaggering elisions in mock-heroic passages and the spritely little cadenzas that always draw laughs whenever this is staged. And they made it clear that this was an angry little sprite, all the way through the bombastic march leading up to the scene where he’s on the gallows and even that can’t kill him. In its own sarcastic way, it was as much about joie de vivre as the opening piece.
After that, it was almost impossible to take the heroic first movement of the Beethoven seriously, especially because the orchestra shifted gears and embraced it with a remarkable gravitas. But pianist Terry Eder had something of the sprite in her, which came to the forefront as the second movement opened, slipping into an elegant glide with just a tinge of rubato matched expertly by the conductor and the rest of the ensemble. Bernard is not the kind of maestro who plays his cards close to the vest, and at this point he had a triumphant “yessssss” grin on his face as he did throughout much of the show. The Park Avenue Chamber Symphony’s next concert is on February 9 of next year at 8 PM, repeating on February 10 at 3 PM with an all-Beethoven program bookending the Concerto for Piano No. 4 in G major, Op. 58 with Symphonies No. 1 and No. 7.