Berkshire Symphony takes a walk on the bright side

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WILLIAMSTOWN — If you believed the Berkshire Symphony, the worst malady the United States suffered between the two world wars was melancholy.

In the real world, disillusionment and the Depression marked the era; musically, Schoenberg and Stravinsky were throwing bombs. In the orchestra's concert Friday night in Chapin Hall, three American works from back then spanned the gamut from the cheerful neoclassicism of Walter Piston's "Serenata for Orchestra" to the hustle, bustle and honking horns of Gershwin's "An American in Paris," with the gentle sadness of Samuel Barber's Violin Concerto in between. The playing was sympathetic though not as assured as in the previous program.

Actually, a cry of pain, deeply personal, arises midway through Barber's dark-hued work. The way that soloist Yevgeny Kutik, conductor Ronald Feldman and the student-professional orchestra made the outburst piercing, and then subsided back into brooding, was a telling moment in a strongly felt, technically suave performance.

You wouldn't have known the 32-year-old Kutik, who grew up in Pittsfield, had never played this concerto in public before. He seemed to feel the music in his bones. Well backed by the orchestra, he brought lyrical warmth to the neo-romanticism of the first two movements and flew through the perpetual-motion finale with nimble fingers and variety of effect. The large audience rewarded him with an enthusiastic ovation.

Kutik almost made the last movement a logical counterweight to the introspection that had preceded it, but that disconnect remains in the music's bones. Whether Barber conceived the finale as an integral part of the concerto, or as a sly bit of revenge on the patron who had caused him grief in the commission of the work, remains a mystery.     

Works by Barber — think of the "Adagio for Strings" — remain in the active repertoire, but Piston, a Bostonian and contemporary of Barber's, seems largely forgotten. That's a shame. His little three-movement "Serenata" (why the Italian title?) proved a genial piece, tart, jumpy and lyrical by turns. Some of the rhythms tested the orchestra's strengths, but the good humor shone through.                                                                                                         

Feldman came to "An American in Paris" by way of Swiss composer Arthur Honegger's distinctively French "Pastorale d' t ," a 1920 work whose summer idyll is redolent of Debussy's "Afternoon of a Faun," Ravel's "Daphnis and Chloe" and other such gauzy evocations of nature. The orchestra's woodwind soloists distinguished themselves in the many bird calls and shepherd pipings.                                                                                                                                       

In place of Pops-style raucousness in Gershwin's Parisian gambol, Feldman led the orchestra on a leisurely stroll through the boulevards, pausing to admire the sights. It was a mellow - and winning - way to hear the old favorite, especially when the strings brought symphonic richness to the blues theme toward the end.                                        

So, the 1920s and '30s weren't all bad after all.

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