The 1965-66 Harvard Radcliffe Orchestra baptized itself Friday night in a sensuous swamp--Strauss' Don Juan, Berg's Violin Concerto, and Berlioz' Symphonie Fantastique--and emerged after two hours smelling very sweet.
Don Juan is Strauss despite himself. Not only is this tone poem typically melodious and brilliantly orchestrated, but it is succinct, unpretentious, and healthy; that is to say, atypical Strauss. The composer captures both his hero's dynamism, in several ingenious climaxes where themes of Don and his women intertwine, and his pathos, in the eerie and mystical close.
The essential challenge of performance is to master the sizeable technical problems and to sustain an ardorous abandon as well. Aside from a little fakery in the strings, and a few errors in prominent solo passages, the HRO came significantly close. Yannatos paced the piece convincingly and generally got all the contrasts he was looking for. The violins were most exuberant, accenting the opening theme just right, and the woodwinds--especially the flutes and those juicy clarinets--phrased things well in the many interchanges. It is too bad, then, that several instruments failed at critical moments: the tranquille violin solo going sour, wrong notes spoiling a cello phrase, the horns (after hitting everything else) slurping the octave in their famous solo, an oboe flatting a chord, and most obtrusively, a trumpet missing its jarring D-flat (as if the Don were stabbed with a broken sword.) But these little disasters were exceptions, due probably to nerves.
Less excusable was the orchestra's refusal to play a true pianissimo, depriving Strauss's tragic chord of most of its mystery. And often inflections betrayed caution and over-literalness, such as in the excessively elongated eighths of the horn-calls. Fortunately Don Juan is a rondo, which means that what goes wrong the first time can be corrected the next: The intonation of the violins and the precision of the brasses both improved rapidly.
Alban Berg's fine scores, expressively terse and textually dense, always pose the initial problem of hearing all that is essential. In the Violin Concerto, this dilemma assumes near-fatal proportions. The solo instrument is integrated into a large Wagnerian orchestra, which it must dominate with music marked mezzo-piano (or softer) seventy-five per cent of the time! Now Berg was no fool; the orchestra's dynamics are determined accordingly. But no orchestra can or will play continually softly, and the HRO proved no exception. The resulting acoustical imbalance seriously challenged the considerable prowess of violinist Charles Castleman.
Silver Medal winner in the Queen Elizabeth of Belgium Competition (the contest for violinists), Castleman has become a respected professional since his graduation from Harvard in 1964. Recalling his Tchaikovsky Concerto with the HRO, it is pleasing to find that his substantial technique is now wielded with more purpose, that his tone is pure, and effortlessly produced, and that his general style is scrupulous and considered. The "Viennese" sections he performs with broad portameati (slides) which makes sense; so does the fragmentation of certain chords to enhance their force.
Most electrifying were the technically imposing passages. Castleman soars through the harmonics and arpeggios, and eats up such frights as bowing legato and plucking (with the left hand) simultaneously. His intonation rarely wavers; at one point in the Allegretto he romps into a high E perfectly. A crucial disappointment, however, was the lack of a big sound when he needed it. The two climaxes of the second movement depend upon massive crescendos, which the soloist was unable to provide. Lack of a real forte, plus a general timidity with rubato, occasionally impeded a very impressive performance.
Aside from excessive volume, the orchestra handled the complex score amazingly well. Especially delightful was the clarinets' witty opening of the Allegretto, the tuba's blustering fifths in the first trio, and the fine horn ensemble at the end of the first movemnt. The Bach chorale and its successive variations were somewhat less than serene; but the transition to Baroque harmony and sublime peace ("My Jesus comes--farewell world"), from twelve-tone sufferings does demand incredible skill.
The infamous programme for Berlioz' Symphonie Fantastique consists of the strange visions of an "oversensitive young musician" who poisoned himself with opium. From the opening bars onward, our wonder grows: Where is the sensitivity? Where is the musician? Ah, but this irresistable old war-horse (or more accurately, warpig) has finally gotten the treatment it deserves. For the honest few who revere the Symphony not as serious music but as a macabre, hilarious circus, the HRO's performance was mad bliss. After a reasonably straight face through the verbose Reveries, the drippy waltz of the Ball episode, and the charmingly empty Scenes in the Country, everyone let loose.
First the tympani's unbelievable crescendo at the start of the March to the Scaffold, then the mock-serious strings, followed by all that nonsense for the bassoons. Finally the inevitable tuba, and a great off-beat joke by the percussion utensils. The Dream of a Witches' Sabbath flaunted its own goodies, notably the raucous way the clarinets, flutes, and bassoons treat the witches' dance tune (a perversion of the Beloved's theme). The brasses' evil parody of the dies Irae plainchant seemed to have more downright nastiness to it than ever before.
In terms of spirit, then, this was a great Fantastique, certainly closer to Berlioz' wild feelings than the sober accounts we usually hear. As impressive as its rare humor was the orchestra's exuberant virtuosity. And Yannatos built some tremendous climaxes, including the finale, which steamed tersely through some sixty measures. This conductor always brings sound, clear logic to his music, fused with a novel, meticulous baton technique. The audience (and perhaps the Orchestra) should watch him more closely.