Genoveva – Overture
Laconika [New York premiere]
Symphony No.7 in C, Op.105
Amit Peled (cello)
Reviewed by: Elizabeth Barnette
Reviewed: 6 November, 2010
Venue: Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center, New York City
Celebrating its 30th-anniversary this year, the Riverside Symphony was co-founded by its music director George Rothman and composer/timpanist Anthony Korf to focus on discovering young artists, unfamiliar works by the great masters, and new pieces. An orchestra of freelance musicians, it presents three concerts a season at Alice Tully Hall, and it has issued six releases of contemporary compositions.
With a relatively small string section of 26 players (8-6-5-4-3), the ensemble was probably of about the size Schumann had when he conducted “Genoveva” in Leipzig in 1850. Since then we are used to having the ‘Overture’ performed by much larger orchestras, but it was interesting to hear it with fairly authentic balances. The interplay between strings and winds could be heard clearly, and the horn fanfares were even too loud, already hinting at a problem in this hall which became more troublesome later in the concert. Rothman’s tempos were on the fast side, as a matter of fact there is debate whether the metronome marking for the Leidenschaftlich bewegt is really 140 or, more likely, 104. He infused the work with lots of nervous energy, but the dynamics never went below mezzo-forte. This led to a rather perfunctory opening section, and robbed the piece of potential drama and contrast further on.
These problems continued with the Hindemith, which is a thickly scored piece. Winds and brass often were out of proportion with the strings, overpowering both this section and occasionally the soloist as well. Amit Peled, a fast-rising artist and Professor at the Peabody Conservatory, is a tall young man who dwarfs his 1689 Guarnerius cello. However, as soon as he put the bow to the string, he drew a huge, beautiful sound from the instrument, effortlessly soaring over the orchestra in all but the densest, martial moments in the outer movements. Peled made this rarely performed piece his own, interweaving with the ensemble when required, but also bringing out its angularity, and sparkling in the lighter sections. The first movement cadenza was a high point, and his lyricism in the Andante showed him as a very thoughtful and mature artist.
George Tsontakis (born 1951), an American composer of Cretan heritage, has many awards to his credit, and most of his output has been recorded by Hyperion and Koch. Laconika, commissioned by the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra (LACO), here received its New York premiere, with the composer in the audience. It is a fifteen-minute, five-movement work, each of them crafted around a different idea – ‘Alarming’, ‘Lacomotion’ (incorporating the commissioning orchestra’s acronym, as does the fourth movement), ‘Mercurial’, ‘Laconicrimosa’, and ‘Twilight’. Tsontakis’s building-blocks are short motivic fragments – repetitive melodic minor seconds, oscillating fourths, descending scale segments – used within a framework of various sets of orchestral color; he moved from a persistent muted trumpet at the beginning, to ephemeral winds and percussion, to string chords reminiscent of The Rite of Spring in the middle movement. ‘Laconicrimosa’ is a tender lament for strings with touches of woodwinds, while ‘Twilight’ closes the circle with a wind-based re-statement of the opening oscillating fourths supported by static low strings.
The Seventh Symphony of Sibelius arguably falls within the category of lesser-performed works by great composers, but the small string section was simply not enough to give it a valid reading. There just is no substitute for the rich, dark expansive string sound one associates with Sibelius. No matter how valiantly Rothman and the orchestra tried, the performance could not achieve the proper character and color.