Annapolis Symphony Orchestra
José-Luis Novo, conductor
Peter Serkin, piano
Maryland Hall for the Performing Arts
Maestro Novo chose a rather ambitious program for this concert. While most everybody else is busy celebrating the bicentenaries of Wagner and Verdi, Novo was celebrating the centenary of Benjamin Britten, who is one of the truly great composers. (The BSO and the NSO are both celebrating with performances of his monumental War Requiem. I didn’t see the NSO performance, but I’ll see the BSO performance next week.)
And to make things interesting, he didn’t go with the obvious choices: The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, or the Four Interludes from Peter Grimes. Novo chose an early work, the Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, because he also wanted to play a work by Bridge himself, The Sea. (Bridge was Britten’s teacher, and Britten was Bridge’s only pupil.) The Variations are based on the second of Bridge’s Three Idylls for String Quartet—actually, just on the “A” section (the brief work is in A-B-A form, with a much more energetic “B” section). Although it wasn’t on the program, Novo had the chairs of the string sections play the Idyll before the full string sections played the Britten. This was a really nice touch, because it was clear how Britten took the theme and transformed it. Because the “A” section is really through–composed, and not your typical theme for variations, Britten’s variations are a lot looser and wide ranging. They’re not like his variations on Purcell’s Abdelazer, or Brahms’s Haydn Variations; they’re more like Elgar’s Enigma Variations.
Alas, the Britten did not play to the ASO’s strengths—or rather, it played to their weakness. The ASO strings often lack precision when playing long, exposed lines in unison. This was particularly noticeable in the second variation, where the first and second violins played unison in their upper registers. They were much better in the faster sections, like the Moto perpetuo eighth variation.
Bridge’s The Sea went very well (the rest of the orchestra filed in for this work). Although written half a decade after Debussy’s La Mer, Bridge’s work is somewhat less modern. The program notes say Bridge was particularly influenced by Ravel and Scriabin, but I thought the resemblance to Elgar (a slightly older contemporary) was more evident. Britten, at the tender age of 10, was so enamored of the third movement, “Moonlight”, that he decided that Bridge would be his teacher. I didn’t quite see what Britten found so revelatory, but I enjoyed the work, and was glad of the opportunity to hear it.
The Brahms second piano concerto is my favorite work of all time, edging out Mahler’s Seventh and Schoenberg’s Gurre-Lieder. And I was really looking forward to hearing Peter Serkin, who was one of the preeminent pianists of his generation, and perhaps less heralded because of his affinity for the more demanding works in the repertory. (When I was in college, I heard him perform Messiaen’s Vingt regards sure l’enfant-Jesus.) But I was disappointed by his playing. I thought the opening arpeggios were stilted, and his playing was overly cautious. For example, the diverging arpeggios which recur throughout the first movement were very studied and carefully played; they were accurate, but instead of being exuberant, they were wooden. There were occasional flashes of bravura playing: it really depended on what technique was required (thundering octaves and scales were fine). The shape of things was fine, the phrasing was good, but it was not a relaxed performance. (Plus, Serkin has picked up this annoying habit of stomping with his left heel. It’s really, really loud.) Todd Thiel did a good job on the treacherous cello solo in the third movement.
I was invited to a reception after the concert. Maestro Novo was there, along with a couple of the string players (not Serkin). I had the opportunity to chat with the maestro, and to tell him (again) how much I appreciated his choice in programming. The lady at the wine and soda table, who was the organizer of the event, was a little distressed at the size of the crowd. There were maybe 30 or so people there, but apparently twice as many had RSVP’ed. I suggested it might have been the late hour; it was a long program, well over two hours (it was 2230 when we had this conversation), and since the ASO audience skews old, they probably just went home.
And I wondered why I was invited (not that I minded). There were lots of folks who were Trustees, or on the Board of Directors. There must be scores of subscribers like me, and dozens of donors (and I’m not even one of their high–rolling donors). And nobody from Development approached me about increasing my giving, or volunteering services or anything. Do you suppose they actually invited everybody, and this was all who accepted and then showed up? That seems so sad, when all they were trying to do was something nice, no strings attached.
|Benjamin Britten||Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, Op. 10
|Frank Bridge||The Sea
|Johannes Brahms||Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-Flat Major, Op. 83
Peter Serkin, piano