Concertgoers get up close for Park Avenue Chamber Symphony’s “InsideOut”

Sun Nov 21, 2021 at 2:45 pm
By David Wright
The Park Avenue Chamber Symphony, led by David Bernard, is inviting audiences to experience the music at close range with its “InsideOut” concert series at Manhattan’s DiMenna Center.

Symphonic music was designed to be heard by people sitting in a large, resonant hall. So why would you trade your favorite seat in Row P for one not just onstage, but inside the orchestra itself?

That’s exactly where the audience was Saturday afternoon at the DiMenna Center for Classical Music in Manhattan, seated among the players for the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony’s “InsideOut” performance of music by Mozart, Brahms and Elgar, with music director David Bernard conducting.

Was this a Walter Mitty fantasy of being one of the rosin-stained wretches in row three of the second violins? Was it curiosity about what a conductor looked like from the front? (YouTube and public television can quickly take care of that.)

The answer is: It’s New York. Here we live by the Gospel of Being Where the Action Is.

The room where it happened was a wood-walled, high-ceilinged, stage-less rectangular space — basically a high school gym for orchestras. Ticketholders waved in after showing the required proof of vaccination walked across the wood floor and found a seat in one of the clusters between the string sections or behind the woodwinds, or (for latecomers) around the edges, but still close in. (Although outdated publicity photos for events in this series show listeners and musicians mingled without masks, on Saturday all present wore masks, except wind and brass players.)

The cluster seating was obviously the most workable arrangement for a performance. A listener’s fantasy of being paired with the oboist from Mozart in the Jungle went unfulfilled. And in this case, the proverbial “fourth wall” really was a wall. Instead of opening out into a concert hall, the room simply ended at the conductor’s podium and the soloist’s piano.

Earlier that afternoon, the orchestra had given a family concert (with an “instrument zoo” for curious kids) using excerpts from that evening’s pieces, and an educational mission was still high on conductor Bernard’s agenda the second time around. He even allowed as how some adults present might be attending a rare (for them) classical performance, or even their first one.

The concert’s overall title was “Venerable Variations,” and at least part of its intent was to show how a composer takes a simple theme and spins it out into a cornucopia of fresh musical ideas. The two main program items, Brahms’s Variations on a Theme of Haydn and Elgar’s “Enigma” Variations are rightly among the most venerated variation sets anywhere. The program opener, Mozart’s Rondo in D major for piano and orchestra, was simpler fare (though said to have been one of his most popular works during his lifetime) but well adapted to illustrating basic techniques of variation.

Which conductor Bernard proceeded to do, with the aid of piano soloist Maxim Lando, performing first the square little theme in the orchestra, then the piano’s first variation, decorated with scales and flourishes. Before playing the full piece, the conductor offered a few points of analysis, speaking with a fitted clear plastic mask that conveyed his facial expressions well (especially helpful when conducting) but his words less so.

Composed during Mozart’s first year in Vienna as a substitute finale for a much earlier piano concerto, the piece proved to be less a rondo than a straight-up theme-and-variations. Bernard crisply led his band and Lando wove varied moods at the piano, particularly excelling in the free but dark dream of the minor-key adagio variation.

Bernard took a similar approach to Brahms’s genial piece, conducting excerpts for illustration before playing the whole work. With minimal gestures and a clear beat, he drew out an enthusiastic, well-coordinated rendering of the complex score, with only the occasional slippage of ensemble or intonation.

From my seat between the second violins and the violas, that magical transition when the reedy little theme blossoms into the first variation, with its soft throb and swirl of the full orchestra, was like going from narrow screen to CinemaScope.

I was particularly aware of an excellent clarinetist behind my left shoulder, answering every demand of his or her part, be it a sparkling staccato run, a soulful solo, or a long-breathed diminuendo. (I was too cool to swivel in my seat to look — unlike some others in an audience containing more twenty- and thirty-somethings than a typical classical concert.)

It was also clear that the strings are customarily positioned closest to the audience for a reason. Sitting near the woodwinds and the brass — and, OMG, the timpani — all those hardworking string players sounded a mile away.

From a seat inside the orchestra, one was reminded how indebted Elgar (like other composers of that era) was to Brahms for his orchestral recipes. Bernard’s point, however, was that Elgar’s variations, unlike Brahms’s, were animated not by music theory but by the composer’s urge to make musical portraits of his friends.

To illustrate, the conductor paused the music every variation or two to verbally identify the next “friend.” At the end of an intermission-less evening, one was uncomfortably aware of how long the performance was becoming. When Bernard preceded the finale with an exceptionally long (and ultimately pointless) speculation about the “enigma” — the “theme” that Elgar said “’goes,’ but is not played” throughout the piece — one’s sit-bones really started to ache.

If the interruptions were as frustrating to the players as to the listeners, they showed no signs of it in their performance, which was up to the high standard they set in the Brahms. One would have liked to hear them play the piece straight through— some other evening.

Wolfgang Mozart once said he preferred playing the viola in string quartets, because he liked hearing the music from the inside. And it’s fair to say that, while not the best way to hear orchestral music, the occasional “InsideOut” concert can sharpen your appreciation of what you hear from Row P.

“InsideOut” continues with Mahler’s Fifth Symphony on May 14 at the DiMenna Center.

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