Academy Festival Orchestra
At the Lobero Theatre, Saturday, July 1.
Reviewed by Gerald Carpenter
It was somewhat unsettling to note that the most revolutionary work on this program was also the oldest, by almost a century. Ludwig Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major, Opus 55, “Eroica,” still has the power, after more than 200 years, to make you sit up and listen, to make you feel as if you are hearing something brand new.
This power is encoded in the score, but it doesn’t take a genius to decipher it. Indeed, there have been a few famous and highly touted interpreters — Herbert von Karajan springs to mind — who never understood the work at all. Others, like Otto Klemperer, understood the work perfectly well but let their analyses overrule their intuitions. What it takes, in addition to a high level of musical competence, is an ability to take sides, to commit oneself to the possibility of transcendence — to be able to feel, with Edna St. Vincent Millay, that “This moment is the best the world can give: / The tranquil blossom on the tortured stem.”
All of this Maestro Miguel Harth-Bedoya and his young orchestra have in abundance, and this was a fabulous Eroica. The pace was brisk but dignified, the solemn moments stately and mysterious, the climaxes explosive. Only at the launch of the final coda did a shadow of hesitation fall upon the performance, but the recovery was swift and triumphant.
After the intermission, the music was lighter, less demanding, impish, and voluptuously melodic. Samuel Barber’s Overture to the School for Scandal, Opus 5, written when he was 22, was the composer’s “graduation piece” from the Curtis Institute. It breaks no new ground, but demonstrates Barber’s gift for writing ravishing tunes and reasserts a kind of ironic romanticism in a musical world dominated by the austerities of serialism and neo-classicism.
Richard Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks, Opus 28, which closed the evening, is also an early work. He was 31 when he wrote it, and of the great symphonic poems which brought him his first fame — Don Juan, Death and Transfiguration, Also Sprach Zarathustra, Don Quixote, A Hero’s Life — he had written only the first, and his operatic triumphs, beginning with Salomé, were 15 years in the future. Yet his command of orchestra color and dramatic structure were already complete. He pulls one rabbit after the other out of his hat, and we gasp with delight every time.
I must conclude with praise for the orchestra’s first-desk players who, without exception, gave virtuoso accounts of their solos during the Strauss and the preceding works.