The first sight that greets you when entering the Lyric Theatre is a wall of local art. Immediately, this wall serves to situate you: you are not here for only a show, or a concert, or an exhibition or a community gathering. Instead, this wall seems to emphasize that every single piece of art that takes place inside this building is part of a larger context of local artistry and engagement between artists and what political theorists call civic society—those people and organizations that go out of their way to build a sense of community.
The Lexington Chamber Orchestra, which performed in a matinee at the Lyric, is exactly that sort of organization, They are, first and foremost, a community ensemble, drawing their onstage talent from the Lexington community. And in return, that community supports them. Though admittance to the Chamber Orchestra’s performances is free, most everyone I entered with donated to support the orchestra.
The program, mostly lighter fare, was titled Four Seasons, and seemed to welcome back audience for the first performance of the New Year. While Jan Pellant, the Music Director of the Chamber Orchestra, had only programmed three pieces, each contained an internal variety that allowed the ensemble to move through a wider range of moods than a quick glance at the program might suggest.
The concert began with 4 selections from J. S. Bach’s Die Kunst der Fuge. Translated, the title simply means ‘The Art of the Fugue,’ and Bach had under this title written an entire course’s worth of demonstration and model of the fugue form.
From a compositional perspective, a proper fugue is a difficult thing to do well—a fugue is a series of rhythmically and harmonically interlocking musical phrases in which each phrase could, in theory, function as a predominant melody. Holding together that level of complexity is a tricky task for any composer, but Bach was the undisputed master of the form. He wrote Die Kunst der Fuge towards the end of his life, and left no indication of what instruments were to perform the piece, how fast or how loudly they were to play it, or even whether he even considered the piece to be properly finished.
All of this ambiguity could be considered a challenging task for any conductor. But, as Pellant points out in his program notes, “these points give the artists opportunities to create uniqueness based on personal creativity” as well.
In performance, Pellant gave the score a respectable shakedown, imbuing variety to the orchestration and performance choices. The first movement, light and quick, was an excellent demonstration that the Chamber Orchestra knows how to balance a technically complicated piece to both demonstrate each individual element and create a unified whole— not an easy thing to accomplish with Bach, who can sometimes feel like a lecture from your math professor on the numerical properties of pi. The second movement elaborated on the technical distinction of the first.
The third movement was a real highlight that emphasized the ensemble’s harmonic balance, and the low voices thrummed away at the base of chords that are passed through the upper three voices in a rhythmically steady pulse that unwinds through the ensemble.
The final movement continued this rhythmic development, rolling through the ensemble like a well-built clock.
The most fascinating aspect of a good Bach performance is that it’s both utterly predictable, in that you can usually make a pretty good guess as to where he’s headed in terms of rhythm, melody, harmony, and the overall structure of the piece, but the craftsmanship of each individual element is such that you don’t find yourself minding it all that much. Often, the best way to enjoy Bach is to let yourself sit back and enjoy the music as it presents yourself to you. This is especially true of his fugues, which unfold with an exacting mathematical precision. The real talent of the Chamber Orchestra lay in the clarity with which Pellant held each part strong to its own voice, maintaining the counterpoint without allowing it to dissolve into a multi-part mush of predictable harmonies.
The second piece was an excerpt of Mahler’s Symphony No. 5; the Chamber Orchestra performed the Adagietto section, which is one of Mahler’s most excerpted pieces. However, the Adagietto was nonetheless an interesting choice for such a tiny ensemble. The rich, almost overdeveloped late romantic chords of Mahler’s symphonies can tax even the large string sections of full-size orchestras, and for a smaller group, especially the intense layering of chords can be a challenge.
Here Pellant had to toss about his hands, one after the other, to each section, making a thousand tiny adjustments on the fly. His long, stentorian frame remained firmly planted in front of his score, but his left hand would flicker and shudder, always coaxing out more vibrato, more emotion, from the scraping bows.
The lights remained up in the audience throughout the performance, giving it a participatory feel for the listeners. The boxy design of the Lyric’s theater, in which the stage sits bluntly in front of the audience, helped to collapse the distance between orchestra and audience, which diffused a great deal of the stuffiness that often invests classical performances.
The final piece came from the Argentine composer Astor Piazzolla. Taking his inspiration from Vivaldi’s famous (and famously overrated) Four Seasons Suite, Piazzolla wrote a set of four pieces for strings ensemble and solo violin that described the seasons of his native Buenos Aires. Mixing high-minded classicism with the rolling and rumbling rhythms of Latin dance music, Piazzolla wrote incredibly technically complicated pieces for string performers.
For the final piece, the Chamber Orchestra was joined by soloist Kyung Sun Lee, a violinist who has held teaching and performance positions at Oberlin College, the University of Houston, and Seoul National University (all schools with music departments of the highest order).
That training was pushed to a dramatic degree, as Piazzolla wrote a violin part that approached the technical complexity of Sibelius’ legendary Violin Concerto. Lee played with expressive sensitivity at the very highest end of her violin’s range, and her fingers danced through a score that included double stops, glissandi, and portamento demands far beyond even that normally asked of internationally acclaimed soloists.
The Chamber Orchestra kept up admirably with this furious pace. The rhythmic impulse was, throughout each movement, absolutely wonderful. Pellant kept the orchestra driving, clearly articulating complex syncopations that both held the beat aloft for a moment in midair but nonetheless returned it to the ground with a cadence even more propulsive than before.
The result was a powerful but lighthearted end to a concert that brought a feeling of generosity and welcome to the audience.
The Lexington Chamber Orchestra rang in their new year with a smile and a cheery wave of the hand, and Lexington’s 2018 is the better for it.