Contralto Amereau lifts American Classical Orchestra with Brahms’ “Alto Rhapsody”

Sun Mar 25, 2018 at 1:53 pm
Avery Amereau was the soloist in Brahms' "Alto Rhapsody" with the American Classical Orchestra Saturday night.

Avery Amereau was the soloist in Brahms’ “Alto Rhapsody” with the American Classical Orchestra Saturday night.

What a difference an intermission makes.

In the first half of its concert at Alice Tully Hall Saturday night, the American Classical Orchestra and Men’s Chorus under Thomas Crawford gave well-intentioned but unfocused readings of a part-song by Schubert and a symphony by a Beethoven acolyte, Ferdinand Ries.

After the break, with a jump-start from the exceptionally fine contralto soloist Avery Amereau, the orchestra raised its game for vivid performances of Brahms’s Alto Rhapsody and Schubert’s Symphony No. 8 (“Unfinished”).

The historic-style orchestra couldn’t find its lean, transparent “period” sound in the early going. Murky low strings matched an inarticulate men’s chorus amid the dark sonorities of Schubert’s Goethe setting, Gesang der Geister über den Wassern, and then Ries’s piece went heavy on the peanut butter.

Ries is remembered today chiefly as the Beethoven friend and memoirist who preserved some of our most treasured anecdotes about the great man, including the famous scene where he tore the title page off his “Buonaparte” Symphony and renamed it “Eroica” after hearing that Napoleon had crowned himself emperor.

However, in his day Ries was an admired pianist and prolific composer, and on the evidence of his Symphony No. 1 in D major, the novelty item on Saturday’s program, his music deserves to be heard more often than it is these days.

One could tell where conductor Crawford was trying to go in this boisterous, rustic music, a junior cousin to Beethoven’s Eighth. The orchestral balances were excellent, with the timpani and horns—so often problem areas in period performance—doing their part handsomely, without overpowering the others.

However, in the symphony’s first movement and the “Eroica”-style funeral march that followed, the lack of clear tone, firm attacks, and crisp rhythms left the performance sounding vague, and few of the conductor’s punches landed. 

The Menuetto went better, with clear contrast among the marked and lyrical themes and the rustic trio section. The fast, light finale was meant to sound tossed off—Crawford gave the final cutoff with a casual wave as he was stepping off the podium—but the secret to a successful “tossed off” performance is fabulously precise playing, and this one, though spirited, was a little short of that.

Still, this outing for the Symphony No. 1 gave a good overall impression of Ries’s virtues as a composer, and whetted one’s appetite for more of his music. 

Speaking of whetted appetites, this listener intends to run, not walk, to the next performance by Avery Amereau, whose dark, clear voice and profound interpretation of the Alto Rhapsody outclassed anything the orchestra had achieved to that point.

Blessed with an instrument of uniform timbre from its strong top to its rich lowest register, Amereau could do no wrong, holding listeners spellbound with long vocal lines and a freedom of nuance that responded to every inflection of Brahms’s unutterably sad and sweet music.

The orchestra and men’s chorus rose to the occasion, gently enveloping the soloist at the close and touching off a storm of applause for the gifted young artist.

One would like to imagine that it was the contralto’s triumph that swept the orchestra on to an excellent performance of Schubert’s “Unfinished.” But the more likely reason this performance came off better than that of the Ries symphony was simply familiarity—which in this case bred not contempt, but energy and assurance.

Arriving smartly at the forte after a long, suspenseful opening crescendo, conductor and orchestra announced they were back in business, the strings wrapping their silvery “period” tone around Schubert’s phrases, the tutti attacks firing on all cylinders. This was not a performance about how the piece ought to sound—this was the piece.

Crawford put his stamp on the first movement’s development with a leisurely tempo that emphasized its portentous character. One likes to think it was the concentration and commitment of the performance that prompted the audience, previously of the new clap-between-movements persuasion, to sit silently between Schubert’s movements while the two natural-horn players took apart and reassembled their instruments to remove excess moisture. (Their buttery playing all evening was worth the wait.)

Crawford and his players outdid themselves in the Andante con moto, which completes this incomplete symphony so beautifully. The con moto pulse never flagged, whether the music was tiptoeing or marching. Meanwhile, the players seemed to catch every subtlety of Schubert’s harmony–even making the listener aware of the double-function notes, those moments where the composer simultaneously resolved one progression and embarked on the next.

One wonders what it would take to give a symphony by Ries the kind of vibrant presence Schubert’s music enjoyed in Saturday’s concert. The answer is probably a lifetime in the conductor’s and players’ ears.


One Response to “Contralto Amereau lifts American Classical Orchestra with Brahms’ “Alto Rhapsody””

  1. Posted Mar 26, 2018 at 9:53 pm by Douglas

    I read this review with great joy. I was at this performance with a friend & we were both mesmerized by Ms. Amereau’s performance. Beauty, Drama & Talent in one package studded with leaves of gold & silver. Wow!

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