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Bringing The Outdoors In

New York
Venetian Theater
07/13/2002 -  
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Symphonies Nos. 25 & 39
Benjamin Britten: Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings

Paul Groves (tenor)
Stewart Rose (horn)
Orchestra of St. Luke's
Donald Runnicles (conductor)

One of the highlights of my vacation is a visit to the lovely estate which houses the Caramoor festival. The experience as a whole is always rejuvenating: a serene and yet stimulating combination of art museum, botanical garden and concert hall, the totality acts as a tonic for the smoky grayness and perpetual dampness of a New York July. A most pleasant picnic is followed by a performance in one of the best thought out listening venues on the summer circuit. By necessity, Caramoor houses its audience in a tent, but takes especial care to enclose the Orchestra of St. Luke’s in a standard proscenium construction carved out of one of the main buildings, the canvas covering commencing at the line between stage and patron. Thus, the music emanates from solid acoustical ground and projects wonderfully to the assembled throng. Other outdoor events in the northeast are plagued by nebulous sound transmission systems; it is refreshing to have at least one where no compromise need be made to the al fresco surroundings.

The other comforting factor during the decision making process as to whether or not to venture forth out into the country for a fine musical experience is the extreme reliability of the host orchestra (a decidedly rare quality in this most musical of cities). The St. Luke’s sound is always very solid and has been refined into an intelligent synthesis of modern large ensemble and period instrument influenced reductionism. At this pivotal point in their evolution, the group has become the local rock of clean and sinewy performance, less opulent than some other bands, perhaps, but significantly lower in orchestral body fat. The lines are clear and the development of individual voices and thematic progressions are much easier to follow than some of their more famous sister organizations, who often blow hot and cold in a maddeningly inconsistent vagueness. New head man (he does not like the term “music director”) Donald Runnicles led an evening of Mozart and Britten that increased my admiration and acceptance of him as a standard bearer.

I’m just a member (not even the foreman) of the jury that is still out concerning Mr. Runnicles. I had some interpretive problems with his breakneck tempi in Beethoven last season, but did discuss this issue with St. Luke’s primary summer conductor Peter Oundjian recently and he explained this alacrity as a return to original metronome markings. Certainly there is room for more than one interpretation, and I was hoping that this weekend’s Mozart concert would allay some of my fears as to the new conductor’s aesthetic. I am pleased to report that the resulting performances were exceptionally well balanced and lucid, notable particularly for their aristocratic charm and unhurried dignity. In the 25th, the revolutionary device of the crescendo (still known as the “Mannheim roller” when the piece was composed) was expertly understated, earcatching but not intrusive to the delicate instrumental balance. In the 39th, a new era seemed to dawn as Maestro allowed his forces to emphasize those “modern” elements just a tad, awakening a sense of foment in the listener, but always in a polite and thoughtful manner. The minuet sparkled with both a heady and a hearty flow and the whole piece was presented in its best and most exciting light, with special mention accorded to the precise winds. The smaller sound seems so right and, with the engineering of Caramoor, created the perfect compliment for a lovely summer’s eve.

The actual serenade, meant to evoke the tasty evening air, fell a little flat. Probably because of the immense difficulties inherent in proper performance of the instrument, the horn seems to inspire composers only when a great practitioner is available. From Leutgeb and Punto to the fathers of both Brahms and Strauss, exceptionally talented hornists have been the dedicatees of most of the significant examples in the literature. The Britten piece was designed for a dashing RAF lieutenant named Dennis Brain (the Strauss biographer extraordinaire Norman Del Mar also played in the same horn section) and, of course, the unique adult treble of Peter Pears. Stewart Rose gave yeomanlike service to his part and recovered nicely after an unfortunate start, but never really reached the expressive center of the piece. Tenor Paul Groves was thrilling and extraordinarily nimble in his execution, his proud and expansive voice ringing out true throughout. I fear, however, that this delicate of a work was a poor choice for an outdoor concert, as a cannonade of coughs, a fusillade of program rattling, and an ambuscade of loose comments overwhelmed the pastoral dignity of Britten’s courageous pacifism. The night belonged to Wolfgang and the crowd was suitably appreciative, but not quite ready for the naked lines of so fragile an effort. Even in this conjurer’s trick of inside sound and outside seating, the English work needed the four walls of decorum, rather than the open air of relaxation.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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