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From Beethoven to Beethoven at Bard

Music Review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Tue Apr 30th, 2019

Conductor Michael Patterson and the Bard College Community Orchestra

The Bard College Community Orchestra last Monday night at Sosnoff Theater performed their annual Spring concert in two parts: Fantasia potpourri and Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony. The first half consisted of relatively short orchestral or opera pieces.

Michael Patterson conducted Beethoven’s Fidelio Overture, Op. 72 with great energy, palpable enthusiasm, even dedicated exuberance. Patterson’s direction featured exciting dynamics that made the performance memorable. Perhaps in some ways the first self-consciously feminist opera, Fidelio was Beethoven’s only opera; it depicted the suffering of a man in marital love, a torture he never had the good fortune to experience in his Job-like life. The character Florestan is chained to the wall for two years while he is starving—the very method Honoré Balzac chose to teach himself how to write a novel, but at least Balzac’s chain ran from his desk to bed in his claustrophobic, sweltering, and freezing garret. Patterson caught the unearthly thrust of the Tantalus-like music with its dramatic, Romantic waves of sound. And, oh, that horn solo!

Erica Kieswetter conducted Max Bruch’s Romance for Viola and Orchestra, Op. 85 which possessed a languorous texture that emphasized strings. Observing the rule that important musicians could not play their own instrument, violinist Zongheng Zhang (already famous on two continents) volunteered to play viola. Kieswetter conducted with fairy godmother finesse as the strings, especially cello and bass, came alive with dawdling, spidery dreams.

An excerpt from Gounod’s Faust, Siébel’s aria of lyric love for Marguerite, Faites-lui mes aveu , from the opening of Act III was sung by Mezzo-soprano Anna-Sophia Botti with delicate accomplishment. Gounod was perhaps the most popular opera composer of the nineteenth century around the globe and was one of the heavenly six whose figures adorned the 1903 renovation of the New York Metropolitan Opera House. Back in those days most people were enthralled by the stage devil. Despite the characteristic non-Manichean French beauty of the music, this lovely piece is not much performed today. Zachary Schwartzman conducted.

Soprano Cassandra Whitehead emerged from backstage to sing O mio babbino caro from Puccini’s comic opera Gianni Schicchi. Whitehead sang with operatic authority and power—for a few seconds I thought I might be sitting at the Met.

Both Botti and Whitehead sang the duet Duo des fleurs from Lakmé by Delibes. This was a truly enchanting piece as their voices blended in harmony. Sung with deep emotion, this was one of the concert’s delicious highlights.

Michael Patterson re-emerged to put his baton to Mozart. While there has been some debate over whether this piece was written by Mozart, it certainly sounds like Mozart, seemingly written during his 1778 Paris summer visit, the manuscript being lost since the commission was a prank by musicians who derided his youth, yet Mozart re-wrote it down later from memory with clarinet line instead of flute.

The Sinfonia Concertante in E-flat major, K.297b is a delightful flight—the only problem being that the flight never landed, since all that was performed was the opening Allegro, yet I did not mind being left up in the air since the piece was so radiant and full of joy. Four of the recent concerto competition winners were front-seated: Lory Frankel, oboe; Russell Urban-Mead, clarinet; W. John Knight, bassoon; Zachary McIntyre, French horn. Some suspended animation followed.

After the break, Zachary Schwartzman conducted the main feature: Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, the “Pastoral,” in F-major, Op. 68. Beethoven’s love of nature was not merely a la mode, but an aspect of his character since it gave him consolation for his deafness. In some ways, this gorgeous symphony is a recollection of his happy rural youth. The rhythmic murmurs, rocking, supply the slow tempo of this ever-popular symphony. The trickle of a little brook grows and widens into a great river of sound. This symphony stands as one of the great programmatic tone poems of all time. Here the flutes and horns shone.

The detailed notes of the well-designed program written by participants was exceptionally excellent. And so was the free admission that made this such a treat for those who had the courage to brave the warm spring air after sunset….