Tuesday, November 1, 2011

MSO Play Ewazen, Berlioz

The Monmouth Symphony Orchestra Sunday, Oct. 30, at the Count Basie Theater offered the world premiere of a work inspired by nature, by composer Eric Ewazen (b.1954) along with a dark work of Romantic fantasy, the “Symphonie fantastique” of Hector Berlioz.

Based on the Baroque form of a concerto grosso, Ewazen’s “Cascadian Concerto” featured the five members of the Monmouth Winds as the concertino group of soloists, Jenny Cline, flute, Nicholas Gatto, oboe, Cathy Adamo, clarinet Richard Sachs, horn, and Kitty Flakker, bassoon. While there was some solo work within the group, notably for horn and bassoon, for the most part Ewazen treats the ensemble as a single entity, playing a light counterpoint against the fuller sound of the main orchestra.

The music here is very old-fashioned and, at the same time, completely engaging. The work was inspired by the vistas of the Pacific Northwest, and I found myself listening to it as a part of a tradition that includes Smetana’s Moldau or Grofe’s Grand Canyon Suite. The language speaks very strongly of the late 19th-early 20th centuries, and as a reference to those older models, it fares very well.

The orchestration in particular is highly polished, making it an excellent pairing with the master orchestrator, Berlioz. The third movement seemed to offer the greatest challenges to the ensemble in that respect and came across a bit awkwardly. But in the others the entire group played with a confidence usually reserved for much more well-known literature. The balance among the soloists and between soloists and orchestra, was exceptional and the technical abilities of the soloist group were evenly matched.

The Berlioz is a strange, visionary piece of music. In the opening three movements, the composer is maudlin as he attempts to get over a lost love. The final two on the hand are great fun: here the narrative breaks any hold on reality and the composer envisions himself walking to his death on a gallows and, in the finale, a macabre dance at a witches sabbath. The transformation of a deep love into a grotesque cartoon is Berlioz way of ripping apart his obsession, neutralizing it.

As the Cascadian Concerto looks back, the Symphonie fantasique looks forward. It’s language and adherence to a psychological drama is unprecedented outside of opera halls and the rigorous sentimentality is unprecedented just about anywhere. A friend of Schumann and Liszt, Berlioz was working toward a musical future where music’s ability to express the internal dramas of the soul was evident.

As one writer of his obituary noted disapprovingly, “the ghastly parodies which Berlioz produced in his infernal pictures may be said to be beyond the safety-line.” Yet it is precisely those moments, when Berlioz is beyond the safety line, that are most interesting and most gripping to audiences today.

The orchestra had moments of difficulty with some of the Symphonie, but much of the entire work, the final two movements in particular, was completely convincing. Throughout the evening, Roy Gussman led the ensemble confidently and with a clear and compelling interpretation.

Subscriptions to the remaining three concerts in the MSO’s season are available by downloading a form available on the group’s website, www.monmouthsymphony.org.

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