ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, March 04, 2007
Vol. 41 - No 40

If they had only connected

“ONLY CONNECT…..” A review of the Symphony Orchestra’s Maestro Concert at the Kularatne Hall on February 25.

One expected this concert to be dominated by the guest soloist, Rohan de Saram, but it was not. This was due to no deficiency of his. The concerted piece chosen for him and the solo item selected by him were such as afforded the display of brilliance, but not of greatness, of performance. The concert was dominated, however, not by the orchestra, but by Beethoven, the greatness of whose “Eroica” symphony was unmistakable. But to take the programme in order:

The opening “Oberon” overture by Weber was disappointing. The orchestra seemed uninspired by the music, which was neat and tidy but slight. Individual strengths were apparent, especially in the strings, but the various contributions were not well knit together. This gave the performance a somewhat ragged air. The players clearly needed to warm up and get over their nerves. May I suggest some of Beethoven’s overtures as future curtain raisers - that is, whenever he is not part of the main programme? They would surely provide the needed stimulus!

Rohan de Saram now made his eagerly awaited entrance for the performance of Tchaikovsky’s “Rococo” Variations for ‘cello and orchestra. From the start it was apparent that the orchestra lacked the level of accomplishment required to complement his standard of playing. This was especially true of the wind, for which there was so much writing. De Saram initially was affected by this lack of balance resulting in some streakiness in his own playing. But he soon settled down to his relationship with the music and it was his tonal strength and technical prowess that carried the work thenceforth. The hall acoustics were not helpful to strings, but even this could not prevent our feeling the tug of his growling bass, the seemingly effortless power of his middle range and the exquisite touch of his upper register. It was a display of virtuosity that gave tantalizing glimpses of the greatness that lay behind it but that the music did not draw forth. The writing was ingenious but decorative rather than imaginative, rococo in fact. It was in the high-paced and very Mozartian coda that the orchestra finally rose to the occasion and showed its capabilities. After the interval de Saram returned alone by special request and played the last movement of Kodaly’s ‘cello sonata. Self-sufficient, he was in his element and simply waded into the movement without taking even a moment for contemplation. This movement proved to be a rapid display finale hovering on the borders of tonality.

His control and accuracy were unfailing despite the wild legatissimos covering all four strings, the persistent double-stopping extended even to pizzicato, the magical flights into the upper reaches of the strings, all executed with astonishing ease and tonal integrity. But this was again a movement designed primarily to express virtuosity and verve, both of composition and execution. It had little depth of thought and feeling, so that we were again denied the opportunity of seeing greatness at work in the performance of a true product of the creative imagination. De Saram would have done better by himself as well as by his audience had he played a movement from one of Bach’s ‘cello suites. Or he might have chosen one of the late John Mayer’s Ragamalas for ‘cello and tanpura, written especially for him, with one of the orchestral ‘cellos or double basses substituting for the latter. Either of these would have combined technical demand with passionate thought and revealed afresh the depth of de Saram’s performing genius.

Beethoven’s third symphony, the “Eroica”, Op.55, is the first of his great symphonies. Although the Ninth went on to become the greatest, 55 has remained the most exciting. It never fails to convey that sense of refreshing shock in the discovery of new powers over structure, orchestration, tonality and tempo, over the totality, in fact, of symphonic conception. This was clearly what the orchestra had been waiting for to prove themselves, and this they did but not in the first movement. This was taken too sedately in the first instance.

As such, the energy and momentum needed to sustain the prodigious climaxes of the development and recapitulation just could not be built up and these lacked the cataclysmic effect Beethoven intended. Contributing to this absence of gusto was a lack of finesse and control at most transitional points, the middle winds being particularly insecure as they took over from the strings, for example in the repeated answers of the first subject. In the end, it was the sheer dynamism of the writing that carried the orchestra along.

The ordeal of the first movement done, the orchestra regained its confidence and delivered the remaining three with much acceptance. Here at last was the genuine Beethoven, not Mozart or Haydn disguised as him as in the approach to the first movement. No doubt this success had something to do with the more sustained structure of these movements, rondo, scherzo and chaconne respectively. But success also had a lot to do with the excellence of the strings in all departments. It was their professionalism and prominence that, despite the unsympathetic acoustics, gave realization to Beethoven’s marvellous writing in these three movements. Their continuous zest, control, timing and accuracy are greatly to be commended, violins and ‘cellos being particularly outstanding. The oboes, flutes, trumpets and timpani too kept their end up throughout and their contribution to orchestral texture in all three movements was noteworthy. Sadly the horns let the side down in the trio of the Scherzo.

Apart from an uneven wind section, the main weakness of this orchestra lies in its inadequate mastery of transitions. I mean the shifts of gear, the connections between the end of a motif or a progress and the start of another, especially when there is little breathing space as in the first movement of the “Eroica”. The consequential loss of energy and quality prevents achievement of that cohesiveness that is so important to presenting a movement as a unified whole for all its disparate elements. The strings managed very well on their own when unencumbered by the wind, for example in the coda of the adagio and the delightful fugal sequences of the finale. But one feels that all these clearly dedicated players are capable of ironing out the problem of connections provided rehearsing is concentrated towards this end. And the leadership needs to relate better and respond more dynamically to Beethoven’s revolutionary approach to sonata form, as in the first movement. For these reasons it is, perhaps, appropriate for E.M. Forster to have the last word in this review by way of the succinct motto he chose for his novel, “Howard’s End”, that says it all, namely, “Only connect…...”

By Priya David

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