BWW Reviews: Park Avenue Chamber Symphony Performs Beethoven, Barber and Bartok
New York City has lots of big attractions that people around the world are well aware of. But New York City also has smaller gems that don't get the same attention but still shine just as brightly. The Park Avenue Chamber Symphony is one such gem. Last Sunday afternoon, this superb ensemble led ably by Maestro David Bernard delivered an impressive performance of Beethoven's Symphony No. 2, which many, more well-known and well-funded, orchestras would be jealous of. Maestro Bernard, who worked without benefit of a score, brought a brilliant and bright quality to the first Allegro movement. The Larghetto that followed was mannered and precisely shaped. The Scherzo, usually performed as a light and merry dance, felt a bit wayward, as the playing got a bit loose. But a strong, majestic and fiery Finale brought the first half to a satisfying conclusion. The Second Symphony was composed during the summer and fall of 1802 and it signaled the end of Beethoven's "early period." For the composer, this was a time of great despair because he was finally realizing that his deafness could not be cured and would indeed be a permanent affliction. That despair is deeply engrained in the work, and the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony dug deep and tapped into that despair and communicated it amiably to the audience.
Samuel Barber's Knoxville Summer of 1915 continued the theme of despair. Soprano Tamra Paselk convincingly breathed life into James Agee's dreamy, nostalgic lyrics of the old south. The piece, commissioned by soprano Eleanor Steber, who premiered it in 1948, cleverly mimics Agee's words both in tone and in timbre. Whether she was contemplating the beauty and vastness of the stars or sitting quietly with "larger bodies than mine," Paselk brought the requisite reverie to the piece, demonstrating total commitment to the text.
The Bartok Dance Suite has always felt like music for a ballet that never happened. Its six movements are a disparate group of Hungarian, Slovakian and even Arabic folk music. The uneven tempi and brusque rhythms are alternately odd shaped and agitated then deceptively playful. The orchestra delivered a performance that felt like ordered chaos (meant in a positive way!) Maestro Bernard appeared to be most in his element during this piece. He seemed to thrive on technical hurdles presented by piece; his face showed almost ecstasy as the ensemble navigated the more challenging moments. The audience seemed to let out a collective sigh of relief when the tension of the Dance Suite finally resolved.
Despite the fine performance of the piece, from a programming perspective, one couldn't help feeling that the Bartok was a somewhat out of place choice to follow the Barber and Beethoven.
Upcoming engagements for the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony will include performances of Dvorak and Brahms, and if Sunday's performance was any indicator, the upcoming shows should not be missed.