Music fans in search of surprises should generally avoid Erie Philharmonic subscription concerts. Transcendent or mediocre, they usually come as advertised.
So, it’s refreshing to report that several wonders were on offer Saturday evening–and no, I don’t mean the inclusion of a work by a living composer (remember “V2 Schneider” last season?). Not that I’m gainsaying the appearance of Christopher Theofanides’ rapt, shimmering “Rainbow Body,” which opened the program.
What was so unexpected was the reception by a Philharmonic audience that treats anything composed after the Brahms Fourth Symphony with deep suspicion. No, there wasn’t a spontaneously hooting wave of approval, but there was none of the tentative hand-patting more suited for the 17th green at Augusta, either.
For this, we must thank music director Daniel Meyer, who not only led a committed and startlingly well-played performance, but had the savvy to tell his audience beforehand what they would hear. This is important, I think, because some audiences need the reassurance of hearing familiar signposts, even in music that is not familiar to them: regular rhythms, a signal return to the tonic, big climaxes that tell you when a piece is over. But more about that last point later.
Now, Theofanides is not Xenakis. His music is tonal and full of ravishing color (my daughter remarked that the music “sounded like Disney music” and I know what she meant). But it’s not made like a Beethoven sonata-allegro, and this, I think, makes some audience members uneasy. Not knowing what to listen for, they feel at sea.
Meyer cleverly and persuasively gave them some direction by briefly explaining the piece’s inspiration: an esoteric bit of Tibetan Buddhist metaphysics (brevity was important here). He then introduced the plainchant, by 12th Century German nun and mystic Hildegard of Bingen, that Theofanides wove into his score. Meyer played the whole thing, and in its own way, Hildegard’s haunting choral work sounded as alien to ears steeped in the Viennese canon as “Rainbow Body” did. But it gave people something to hang on to and to listen for, if only as a sort of musical “Where’s Waldo?” parlor game.
In any case, it worked, and so did the performance. The proof: my daughter, who attended the concert under duress (from me), closed her cell phone and sat up attentively. No greater praise could Meyer and the Phil receive.
The second surprise came when the IATSE guys lugged a small amplifier to the stage for the Rodrigo “Concierto de Aranjuez.” Ana Vidovic is not the first classical guitarist to use an amplifier, and let’s face it, we’ve all heard the Warner’s acoustics swallow up powerful violin soloists. The whispery, intimate classical guitar doesn’t have a chance in there.
Still, the electronics were not expected, though on balance, the sound coming from the amp was modest and not grotesque. It rendered Vidovic’s very clean playing faithfully, though a broad range of colors was not apparent, maybe a function of the sound reinforcement.
This was a performance that was perhaps short of duende, though the cool, somewhat detached aesthetic shared by conductor and soloist had the salutary effect of minimizing the kitsch potential in this now over-familiar music. The famous second movement had a cool, moonlit quality that was a bit jarring at first, but had its own logic. Vidovic’s careful playing and eschewing of splashy emotion drew the ear to her. This might have been a guitar concerto by Stravinsky in his driest neoclassical mode, and even though Meyer used a full complement of strings (another surprise), balances were nicely controlled in all but the biggest tuttis.
Friends of mine, attentive listeners and lovers of Spanish culture, were appalled. I was rather pleased. And may I say that Vidovic looked really sensational in a dramatic, jungle-print gown?
Meyer carried some of his cool into the Tchaikovsky “Pathetique” Symphony that ended the evening. Again, the playing was quite good. And while we’re on that, exactly when did the strings, long the sick man of the Phil’s sections, become the orchestra’s MVPs? Exhibit A: the genuine pianissimo in the opening Adagio that I haven’t heard since . . . well, I don’t recall ever hearing this at a Phil concert. And they achieved the feat more than once, along with being notably unified and (a shaky moment by the celli in the Adagio lamentoso aside) well-tuned.
Big ups, also, to new principal bassoonist Laura Koepke for her sorrowing, eloquent concertante turns. And another surprise: the Phil’s usually off-the-leash brass were relatively under control, though this may not be a virtue in Tchaikovsky (full disclosure: all week I had been listening to Mravinsky’s classic, but highly idiosyncratic recording where the brass snarl, bray and sob with over-the-top emotion).
This was a very purposeful, unsentimental–I’m tempted to say a very Germanic–reading. Those who prefer eye-rolling, bodice-ripping, dark-nights-of-the-Slavic-soul drama would have left unsatisfied. And this is what makes Tchaikovsky such a difficult composer to bring off, despite the arena-rock appeal of all those juicy melodies and danceable rhythms: the emotion is written into the music. How much sauce do you put on a dish such as this before you ruin it?
In the end, Meyer wielded a teaspoon, not a ladle, but the performance was tightly argued and very well-played. He knew exactly what he was doing. Too bad the audience didn’t.
Look, complaining about between-movements applause makes as much sense in Erie as complaining about the weather or the quality of our political leadership, and Lord knows the swaggering march that is the Allegro molto vivace verily screams for a standing-O, but I think Meyer intended to plunge directly into the following Adagio lamentoso. It would have been a neat effect, but the interstitial applause foiled that plan.
Even worse was the moment in the finale when the brass rises to a proclamatory fervor before the main theme returns. Meyer took a bit of a pause there. The audience read this as a customary, all-hands-on-deck climax, and a smattering of premature hand claps were heard. Three minutes later, when the final heavy sighs from the low strings (played with rather chilling control at low volume) came, Meyer dropped his hands and . . . nothing. Even in a piece as familiar as the “Pathetique,” the audience had no idea where the ending was.
See what I mean about those signposts?