March 14, 2010

Happy Decision, Odessa Philharmonic Concert in Worcester

by Steven Ledbetter

It wasn’t for the originality of the program that I was drawn to the performance by the Odessa Philharmonic presented by Music Worcester in Mechanics Hall, on March 12, for, in truth, that was about as cut-and-dried as a classical program can be: Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony, Saint-Saens’s Cello Concerto #1, and the Beethoven Seventh. But I had met the conductor Hobart Earle at Tanglewood in 1987 and had never been to a concert that he led, since even then he spent the major part of his career in Vienna, and for the last 17 years has been Music Director in Odessa. Soon after his time at Tanglewood, Earle had conducted in Vienna two works for string orchestra by George W. Chadwick and Henry F. Gilbert, Boston composers of the romantic era whom I had presented in a lecture to the conductors there (his performance was recorded and is still available on CD). Recently I had learned that his performance of the Chadwick Serenade in F was almost certainly the world premiere of the piece, and I thought he might be amused to learn that.

The New Yorker critic Alex Ross recently gave a speech in London (reported in the Guardian here, in which he attacked the odd “rule” forbidding applause between movements, which so often dampens legitimate enthusiasm on the audience’s part. In the course of this talk he mentioned “the aggressive affectlessness of many professional musicians” (a terrific phrase, and so appropriate!) as one of the issues facing modern-day classical performance—a performing style evidently designed to suggest that the player has no personal involvement but is rather an automaton out of whose motions the music simply emerges.

Happily, the players of the Odessa Philharmonic are not at all of that ilk. Encouraged by the generally enthusiastic and forceful gestures of the conductor, they respond vividly and with evident commitment.

The program began promisingly with an “Unfinished” Symphony shaped with careful attention to the details of dynamics and accents that bring life to Schubert’s beautiful but thrice-familiar piece. A conductor who insists that pianos be really piano and fortes really forte is always welcome, especially when the orchestra follows him with such immediacy.

William DeRosa was the soloist in the Saint-Saлns Cello Concerto #1, giving a reading that was splendidly virtuosic in the fast triplet runs and warmly expressive in the singing passages. Solo cellists in concerto repertory often have to struggle to be heard over the orchestra, even in the quite lucid scoring of Saint-Saлns, so it was a surprise to notice that the low riser on which the soloist was seated for the performance was carpeted. This had the effect necessarily of muffling the cellist’s sound somewhat, though DeRosa projected clearly in spite of what seemed like a disadvantage.

The real highlight of the program was the performance of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, a work of enormous rhythmic drive and of such oft-repeated rhythmic patterns that composer John Adams has cheerfully called it Beethoven’s minimalist symphony. But it is also ferociously difficult to maintain the energy required from beginning to end, whether in the explosive loud sections or the more delicate soft sections that require control of the instruments only milliseconds after they have been called upon to play full out. Despite these challenges, the Odessa players dug into the music with such evident conviction, passion, and strength that I frankly cannot remember ever having heard a more fully satisfying representation of the score: tight ensemble, superbly observed dynamics, non-stop energy, and the kind of leaning-forward engagement that transmits the excitement to everyone in the hall.

As the Beethoven came to an end, I couldn’t help thinking that Beethoven treats his players rather as Stravinsky treated the “chosen one” in The Rite of Spring—a maiden chosen to dance herself to death. The Beethoven finale threw off the kind of energy as to suggest that the players were really making a life-and-death case for it.

As the conductor left the stage following the first round of enthusiastic applause, it appeared, oddly, as if the string players were going to follow him off. But it turned out that violas and cellos merely switched places for the encore, an ingratiating performance of the Artist’s Life waltzes of Johann Strauss the younger. Hobart Earle’s years in Vienna certainly make him a superb Strauss conductor, one who knows that the waltzes are not to be played as written, but with all kinds of adjustments of tempo that one absorbs fully in the city for which this music was first created. Few American conductors do Strauss so stylishly, and Earle has inculcated the tradition in his Odessa players, too. He told me later that they do a traditional New Year’s concert featuring the work of Strauss, which they play with admirable grace and charm. For a second encore, he closed with the Radetzky March by Papa Johann Strauss, encouraging the audience to clap along during the loud parts of the main theme, as seems to be traditional in Vienna.

All in all, a surprising evening, one of the most satisfying orchestral performances of the season.

Steven Ledbetter is a free-lance writer and lecturer on music. He got his BA from Pomona College and PhD from NYU in Musicology. He taught at Dartmouth College in the 1970s, then became program annotator at the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1979 to 1997.