Orchestra of St. Luke’s Begins Carnegie Hall Season for 2013-14

I had a mixed reaction to tonight’s concert by the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, led by Principal Conductor Pablo Heras-Casado, at Carnegie Hall.

The centerpiece of the concert was Benjamin Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings, Op. 31, with soloists Ian Bostridge (tenor) and Stewart Rose (horn).  As prelude, the orchestra performed Mendelssohn’s Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  After intermission, they played Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 9.

The Britten was splendid, as one could predict with Bostridge involved, since he is now the “go to” person for Britten’s song cycles, having well inherited the mantle from Peter Pears, for whom these songs were written.  Bostridge’s tone no longer has quite the youthful innocence and energy that entranced me so many years ago when I heard his first recording of Schubert’s Beautiful Maid of the Mill, but there is a well-earned maturity and thoughtfulness that adds great meaning to Britten’s profound settings of this collection of poems.  Stewart Rose’s horn solos were more than adequate to the occasion, if not quite of the calibre one recalls from Barry Tuckwell or the Dennis Brain recording.

But the rest of the concert was on a lower level of accomplishment, I felt, and I blame conductor Heras-Casado in part for taking some fast tempi that were beyond the ability of his orchestra to articulate cleaning and were probably the cause of some of the sloppiness in wind solos and scrambling in strings.  Surely I enjoy a brisk Mendelssohn overture, but there are human limits to be observed.  I had the same reaction to the first movement of the Shostakovich, where several of the solos were played less than cleanly at the excessively fast tempo.  The second movement was adequately restrained, with a beautiful clarinet solo, and the third movement presto went well.  The bassoon cadenzas and trombone interjections in the fourth movement were also excellent, but then I was surprised, in light of the speedy tempi earlier on, that the final allegretto was restrained by comparison, except for the very fast (and excellently played) coda.

This makes sense, as a matter of terminology, since an allegretto shouldn’t be quite as fast as an allegro, and the composer gives metronome markings for this movement that suggest a more moderate pace than many of the performances I’ve heard.  Indeed, at this tempo, I was really impressed at how Shostakovich seemed to be thumbing his nose at Soviet authority when the full orchestra burst into the trivial “triumphal march” towards the end, right before the coda.  At this tempo, the sacrcasm really came through, as if the composer was mocking the idea that he should be presenting a triumphal march to commemorate the end of World War II and the great Soviet victory over fascism.  Hearing this performance, I could almost understand the ferocious condemnation he suffered as a result of this piece — it’s almost as if he was asking for it with this mocking march tune.  But I’ve never quite heard it that way before, so I have to thank Maestro Heras-Casado for this insight. 

I hope that as he settles in further to his position as principal conductor, his working relationship with the orchestra will deepen and perhaps he will be more sensitive to the need to adopt tempi that are workable.  (One gets spoiled listening to the NY Philharmonic, whose wind players probably could produce flawless renditions at these tempi if called upon to do so.)  Some of the playing tonight just struck me as not quite prime time Carnegie Hall calibre, but from what I’ve heard in past seasons, I wouldn’t put all the blame on the instrumentalists.

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