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Monday, April 19, 2021

Pleasures for the Few

From the Classical Vault Dept.: It’s no secret that the classical-music audience in New York’s Albany area is laughably small. There used to be classical-music programming at many of the area’s halls, but these days you’ll find nothing at Proctors while the Union College series soldiers own, its audience greying into obsolescence. Here’s a look at a pair of concerts I reviewed in 1986.


THEY KEPT THE HOUSE LIGHTS ON at Proctor’s Theatre during the concert by L’Orchestre National de Lyon, probably so we all could see that there were some people in the house. Or maybe it was just to read the program notes. Whatever, the little club that gathered—there were, oh, maybe three times as many in the house as on the stage—rallied forth to do the clapping work of many.

Henri Dutilleux
Not that I think they should clap—this is a guilt thing that classical music concertgoers in the area seem to fall for. We’d better clap hard and make the orchestra feel good, make them think this isn’t a completely deadbeat town. But look at it this way—the fewer there are in the house, the fewer distractions you have to put up with. Let the unwashed stay home and yell at their TV sets.

It’s not as if the orchestra tried any less hard. If anything, there was a nice feeling of casualness, of spontaneity about the concert. We probably all could have taken off our ties and been that much happier.

Let’s face it—the crowd isn’t going to come out to hear stuff written by composers whose names they can’t pronounce. “So what’d you hear last night?” they ask at work the next morning. “Oh, the first symphony by Aw-Ree Duh ... Doo ... Duh-Tee-Yo!” Nope.

Henri Dutilleux suffers one of the more formidable problems of classical composers: he’s still alive. The symphony was written when Andrew Lloyd Webber was three, a four-movement work that takes the rhythmic obsession of the minimalists and proves that there’s room for captivating melodic development as well. It was a gorgeous, moving performance, and conductor Serge Baudo demonstrated easy command over a very responsive force.

The piece was a wall-rattler at moments, with strings and brass roaring in a Prokofievian tumult. A nice sense of humor also was displayed, a little bit Bartók, a little Raymond Scott.

It was Bartók who owned the first half of the concert, with a stunning performance of his second violin concerto by Gerard Poulet. Poulet looks a little like Robert Vaughan in his Man from Uncle days, complete with a forelock that he tossed around dramatically.

Dramatic was the word for his stage manner: this guy seethed music, his face a series of grins and grimaces. It sure didn’t take away from his playing, though. It’s been along time since a violinist has come to the area and stayed off the basic rep track. The Bartók concerto deserves more attention, and a performance like this should guarantee that.

A curious aspect of Proctor’s acoustics was revealed, at least where I was sitting. An echo of the violin reached me almost at the same time as the main sound, so a double-track effect was created. There’s not much of a shell behind the players, and this seems to have been at the expense of the brass section. Of course, with concert attendance of less than 300, I don’t expect any improvement soon.

The program began with a Berlioz overture, a merry collection of tunes from the opera “Beatrice and Benedict,” and closed with the second suite form Albert Roussel’s ballet “Bacchus et Ariadne,” a couple of couples that coupled the halves. For the lucky few of us listening, it was a Bacchanale worth dancing to.

L’Orchestre National de Lyon, Proctor’s Theatre, Nov. 3


RADIO AND RECORDINGS HAVE created such a demand for music of the 17th and 18th centuries that stuff gets dug up that may well deserve to lie unnoticed for eternity. But this music is easy to listen to, if you don’t let your ears wander beneath the surface. It’s music that won’t curdle your white-wine spritzer, the non-threatening Windham Hill variety of classical music.

Which makes a visit by a group like The English Concert so much the more rewarding. They’re not playing background music, and they give you the tunes as they probably would have been heard in those centuries if the players were as skilled as this group.

They performed at Union College’s Memorial Chapel, an acoustical delight, arranging themselves on the small stage around conductor Trevor Pinnock’s harpsicord for a night-before-Halloween program that also featured the sensational singing of soprano Sylvia McNair.

Incidental music from Henry Purcell’s “The Fairie Queen” kicked things off, a short suite of provocatively titled sections that promised such events as “Arrival of the Swans” and “Monkey’s Dance.”

Balance between orchestra and harpsichord was perfect, and the dynamics throughout put the lie to the notion that instruments of the period lack a volume range. Two oboes and baroque bassoon rounded out the group for the Purcell; it was strings and harpsichord alone for the second of the Concerti Grossi op. 6 collection by Arcangelo Corelli.

Again, in a concert setting the rambunctiousness of the music has much more chance to come through than when relegated to a radio background, and Corelli wrote some feisty stuff.

A cantata by Handel closed the first half; McNair sang “Crudel tiranno Amor,” a tribute both to unhappy love (a rich source of Baroque texts) and to vocal dexterity. McNair had the lightness necessary to complement the small band, with energy enough to sell the song.

The brief Chacony in G minor by Purcell was the frisky post-intermission piece; the rest of the half consisted of Bach’s Cantata No. 202, “Weichet nur, betrubte Schatten,” popularly known as the Wedding Cantata.

It’s a charming piece that carries a pleasant folk-song feeling, especially in the aria “Sich uben im Lieben,” that the singer and continuo played like a village barn-dance.

In fact, they chose that aria for an encore, getting into the Halloween spirit with masks, wigs and hats, making Trevor Pinnock look like a demonic Groucho Marx and giving a bit of a shock to an audience unused to so much classical-music merriment.

The English Concert, Union College Memorial Chapel, Oct. 30

Metroland Magazine, 13 November 1986

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