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Cortese conducts The Orchestra Now with fire and finesse

Music review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Sun Feb 5th, 2017

Michael Rau and Holly Nelson to his right

Federico Cortese unobtrusively ascended the conductor’s podium at Bard’s Sosnoff Theater. A short commentary essay on Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings (1936), delivered with good diction and humor by Holly Nelson, preceded Barber’s ever-popular mood piece. She reported that Cortese said that if you were comfortable playing your strings toward the end of the piece, then you can be sure you were not playing it right. The orchestra played with unity and elevation, ascending atonal heights into winding and soaring melody. It was a pleasant warm-up.

A platoon of winds and brass entered for Claude Debussy’s La Mer (The Sea, 1905), the first major Impressionist landscape opus for orchestra in three movements. This fantastic mood piece is always charming to hear, especially the third movement, Dialogue of the wind and sea. Trumpeter Christopher Moran, whose favorite symphony is Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, confessed in his introduction that there was enough of the trumpet in La Mer to make it one of his top favorites. The first movement dramatizes a Baudelaire-like vision of Romantic departure, while the second movement depicts the play of waves in a nearly fundamentalist Naturalism. The third movement is such inexpressible magic that garrulous commentators have little or nearly nothing to say, except that it remains exquisite and it was just that with Cortese coaxing students to play above their level, which is quite accomplished indeed.   

During intermission I ran into violinist Holly Nelson. I asked her what it was like to work under Cortese. She said he was inspirational and fiery, yet she wondered if Cortese was treating them with kid gloves. Last year she had the experience of working under Simon Rattle who was more blunt and even brutal in the way he spoke critically to musicians he was conducting during rehearsals. I asked Holly what she thought of the upcoming César Franck symphony and she expressed slight dismay that it seemed more Germanic than French. Working with it in rehearsal, made her realize that the symphony’s texture and melody were more complex than she first thought. I was happy to have met her because during the Debussy my ear, then eye, focused on her exuberant sawing. First violinist Michael Rau was also formidable.

Yes, the greatest French symphony, Franck’s Symphony in D minor,  of the nineteenth century has its roots in late Beethoven, Liszt, and Wagner (the Prelude to Tristan und Isolde). After the thunderous Germanic climax of the first movement, the second movement turns quite French as it commences with plucking strings and harp (which contributed so much mood to the Debussy), mimicking the sound of a French guitar folk song. Whether dramatic or soft, this symphony contains such developmental tension that the listener hangs on every note and this performance achieved that glorious tension.

Instead of an expected crescendo in the third movement, a dolorous lament for three-quarter million French soldiers who died in the recent Franco-Prussian war sounded, evoking water in my eye. I might have missed this sentiment had not trombonist Matt Walley noted this fact in his eloquent introduction. (These brief introductory remarks are not only informative but act as an ice-breaker.) Despite plumbing the depths of that elegy, the orchestra rose in ecstacy to nail the exuberant and magnificent climax of optimistic reversal, a religious psychology more French than Germanic.

Conducting Franck, Cortese was beyond fiery—having caught the taut rhythms and melodic shadings of this masterpiece, he was a living explosion who had reached for the stars and brought them down on a cold winter night.