The Orchestra Now and JoAnn Falletta: Youth and Agility

Thursday, December 14, 2017: Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center, New York

The Orchestra Now is another initiative of the indefatigable Leon Botstein, and part of the graduate program in performance at Bard College. Members of the group introduce the music being played, and appear in the lobby at intermission to mingle with concert attendees. It’s a nice touch, and it would be even better if the players prepared their comments beforehand with greater care. Never mind. It’s the thought that counts.

On this occasion, JoAnn Falletta, a superb conductor all around, led an enterprising program of twentieth-century music, one that displayed the talents of her ensemble to fine effect. John Adams’ brilliant little curtain-raiser A Short Ride in a Fast Machine opened the program excitingly, followed by Penderecki’s recent Double Concerto for Violin, Viola and Orchestra, here played in an arrangement for violin and cello. Dennis Kim (violin) and Roman Mekinulov (cello) took the difficult solo parts.

To be honest, this isn’t one of the composer’s stronger works. A single movement about twenty-five minutes long, the piece alternates moments of sad lyricism with frantic outbursts from the soloists and evil giggles in the orchestra. The tonal and melodic bits provide moments of contrast; they aren’t used to impose on the music any sense of overall progress, with the result that you never quite know where you are or when the work is going to stop. In short, it’s a frustrating piece to listen to, even if the idiom isn’t especially difficult. No complaints about the performance though, which was both alert and committed. The two soloists played a charming theme-and-variations encore that got more applause than the actual concerto, perhaps unsurprisingly.

The program concluded with Holst’s evergreen The Planets. Falletta didn’t spare her players in this swift, virtuoso interpretation, pushing each orchestral section to its limits. Indeed, Saturn could have done with a bit more heaviness in its inexorable central march, but there was no denying the menace of Mars, the buoyancy of Jupiter, or the cold spaciness of Neptune (which faded away beautifully at the very end). The piece consists largely of characterful tunes atop rhythmic patterns that can be very tricky to get right, so kudos to the strings for their precision and tight ensemble. The woodwinds, flutes especially, were also very impressive; the trumpets could have been a touch bolder. Still, in the relatively intimate setting of Alice Tully Hall, the piece made a powerful impression. Whether all of this added up to a “Now” sort of happening, it was a refreshing evening and a pretty impressive display of young talent.

David Hurwitz