Harvard’s Bach Society Orchestra gave their first performance of the year Saturday night in Paine Hall. The program for the evening was the overture to the Rossini opera L’Italiana in Algeri, the Ives musical portrait Three Places in New England, and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7. BachSoc chose wisely for this first concert, all well-known and widely-loved pieces. Overall, the orchestra, led by conductor and music director Yuga Cohler ’11, shone at its most frenzied and exuberant, and it was a joy to watch the performers’ strong and enthusiastic reactions as they played.
The Rossini overture fit the orchestra’s strengths best. The overture is bright and lively without being light, and even its slower sections have the undercurrent of manic energy that runs through Rossini’s work. The orchestra drew these themes out admirably, with conductor Cohler as an enthralling presence, cuing vigorously and bending his ear over the sound with complete attention. The orchestra couldn’t help but follow his lead in expressiveness of movement, bowing and blowing with such intensity that it often seemed they would rise clean out of their seats. This intensity was consistent throughout the evening— and where it hurt some of the lighter and more spontaneous sections of the Ives and the Beethoven, it was wholly appropriate for the Rossini. Rossini’s melodies, here laid on top of dramatic chords, are always full-tilt, solid and pristine, fitting BachSoc’s intensity of mood and focus. The characteristic Rossini crescendo, repeating the same phrase ever louder, was truly convincing. These moments of pure loudness carried the piece forward when it sometimes lagged behind or lulled in energy and tempo. Occasionally the piece felt a little too strict and measured, failing to suggest the story of Rossini’s comic opera, yet a few of the solos, notably the flute, helped add humor and a suggestion of narrative arc to the piece.
The first movement of the Ives, “The St. Gauden’s in Boston Commons,” opens with close, heavy harmonies and flittering violin, meant to evoke fog, mystery and tension. BachSoc did not quite accomplish to paint such a picture. The uncertain feeling was there, but it did not always feel intentional. There were uncertainties and issues in both rhythm and tuning, especially in the woodwinds, and the cutoffs, releases and mood switches sometimes dwelled and dragged. However, the orchestra regained its stride for the furious passages, most notably the patriotic second movement. The fast, bombastic drum and trumpet solos were exciting and well-executed, and the orchestra seamlessly and confidently wove together multiple melodic lines and textures, with lovely folk-like interludes. While the slower and softer entrances were not always clean and unified, the sharp attacks were spot on. The orchestra thrived in its displays of measured, exuberant chaos in this concert, when its restraint was just enough to keep the piece together and its intensity fed the buildup of energy. Though the potential of the slow passages was not always fully realized, conductor and orchestra both displayed a rich and subtle variety of expression and musical moods in the faster, happier parts.
The Beethoven suffered most from tuning problems in the woodwinds, but overall it was a highlight of the evening, showing the orchestra capable of moods we hadn’t seen before. BachSoc’s rendition had the flowing of melodies and harmonies through each other, the dance-like and wild qualities that characterize Beethoven 7. The orchestra was again restrained, and some of the spontaneity was subdued, but the orchestra was freer and more expressive, more joyously overflowing, than it had been all evening. The repeated rhythmic figures that ground the second movement were impeccable and better for the orchestra’s particular focus. Except for a slightly over-quick second movement, none of the orchestra’s earlier tempo problems carried into the Beethoven. The small, repeated melodic gestures, full open chords, and rich tone that gave some passages a carousel-music type character were lovely and lyric, giving a sense of storyline that had been missing. Cohler’s energy was more delighted and less frenzied than before — he was wearing a pleased half-smile for most of the movement — and that was reflected in the orchestra’s playing. The duet between the violins and cellos showed a beautiful dynamic between orchestra players, and the simple, consistent rhythms of the bass line sometimes seemed to ground the orchestra and free it from being too concerned with strict time and basic technical aspects.
The Beethoven was enthusiastically received and a good way to end, playing right into the best features of BachSoc that were evident that evening. This being Freshman Parent’s Weekend, many parents were in the audience watching their children’s debut. To all appearances, none left disappointed—the audience certainly enjoyed themselves. It was hard not to, in the intimate space of Paine, where the audience is up close with the performers and their clear joy.
- The Harvard Art Review Music Board
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