By WILLIAM AMORY
For Montclair Local
In a highly successful concert last Sunday at Immaculate Conception Church in Montclair, David Chan of the Montclair Orchestra led his musicians and the audience through music spanning four centuries with the theme of “changes”: Arvo Pärt’s “Fratres,” Richard Strauss’ “Metamorphosen” and Antonio Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons.”
This was the second concert by the new group. This time, the ensemble was made up entirely of strings, plus percussion and harpsichord. The MO strings were clearly led by a conductor who communicates what he wants economically, but also encourages freedom of expression, a combination that was exhilarating. The audience was enthusiastic and the church seemed full.
In Pärt’s “Fratres,” the movement of the ensemble’s sound through a sonic soundspace was the “change.” In a short introduction by Chan before the piece, he likened the experience of listening to it as one might watch a procession as it approaches, passes by, then recedes into the distance. The players sounded beautiful sonorities as Chan led them in a sculpted sonic three-dimensional work depicting this procession. Pärt calls his style of composition “tintinnabulation,” or the ringing of bells, and the church’s acoustics helped the piece achieve a bell-like resonance.
From halfway back in the pews the sound seemed to have picked up some of the reverberant quality of the tall and deep space of the church to warm the sound of the strings and to deepen the sound of the double basses. Here Pärt’s style is pared down to
three elements: a drone in the double basses; the motives and harmonies, which ring above the drone in the other string sections; and a percussion part, which seems to punctuate the musical stages of the “procession.” Chan achieved the sense of movement in this imagined procession by both carefully controlling the sonic progress of the piece and by letting his players play richly. His conducting served to show Pärt’s simple but universal piece in a luminous light.
Strauss’ “Metamorphosen” was the second piece on the program. Here the hyper-romantic style of this late 19th-century master in 1945 was in service to his response to the depredations of World War II. Using far more chromatic harmony than Pärt and interweaving multiple themes, Strauss’ musical aim is also more complex than Pärt’s —he writes in an elegiac vein to express the pain of the changes that World War II have wrought, contrasting with phrases that want to take flight: but these phrases seem mostly to end up earthbound and wondering.
To underline the change in the world that has occurred by the time he published his work, Strauss harkens back to a time of hopeful energy with quotes of Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony, against other, far darker themes.
Despite Chan’s tight control of his ensemble, the sonic freedom in the strings’ playing was gorgeous. Again, the acoustics in the church played a part: the middle sonorities enjoyed a boost of richness, so that the overall sound had a high-cello, or viola sound. This might have detracted slightly from the possible drama of the piece, as higher phrases in the violins did not bloom as they might, but the darker themes were reinforced and the beauty of the playing did great service to Strauss’ composition.
After an intermission, the orchestra returned with “The Four Seasons.” The orchestra was reconfigured, in part to make room for the harpsichord. All stood except for the cellists, and Chan, as soloist, stood upstage center.
Chan introduced the piece as an original example of “programmatic music,” a phrase often associated with Berlioz’s “Symphonie Fantastique.” But here, in a composition written at least a century earlier than Berlioz’s, we are treated to a dramatic depiction of each of the four seasons, complete with dogs barking and hunting horns sounding (all played by stringed instruments only!). The MO program printed the sonnets that accompany Vivaldi’s work (which may have been written by Vivaldi himself), and Chan encouraged the orchestra to read along.
Tempi on the speedy side added to an exhilarating feeling. Sometimes the speed felt in
danger of obliterating the musical and pictorial detail, but, minus one small bobble in one of Chan’s more exuberant phrases, the excitement and the deep dramatic commitment in his playing combined to put this rendition of “The Four Seasons” at the highest level of attainment. Even though the acoustics of the church did not help Chan, his high-flying phrases that would have soared more tellingly in a space more favorable to the higher frequencies still penetrated with compelling drama, and singing tone.
Each piece had a programmatic comment on the theme of “changes”: in the Pärt, the listener witnesses a sort of existential procession set in the vast universe as it approaches, passes and departs; in “Metamorphosen,” Strauss reacts to the negative changes brought about by World War II; in “The Four Seasons,” Vivaldi leads us through the changes of the seasons and in our lives because of them. Chan conducted the three works with a strict authority and a musical generosity, encouraging his players to express themselves fully. For all of us in attendance, the concert revealed this one more “change”: the unfolding of a distinct musical talent at the helm of a virtuosic ensemble right in our own Montclair.