Review: American Classical Orchestra Excels in a Revelatory Concert at Alice Tully Hall
By Christopher Johnson, Contributing Writer, September 18, 2017
Let’s cut right to the chase: the American Classical Orchestra is one terrific outfit, and their concert this past Saturday evening at Alice Tully Hall was a mind-blower.
This is a “period-instrument ensemble,” using “era-specific performance techniques” proper to the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, that aims to give audiences an opportunity to “experience classical music in the specific way it was intended to be heard”—one of those faintly medicinal mission-statements that probably explains why the ACO seems to have flown under so many people’s radar in spite of this being its thirty-third season, and its thirteenth in New York City. In practice, this is a band made up of a crème-de-la-crème of New York’s freelancers, playing on magnificent instruments that they are thrilled and eager to tell you all about, and having what looks like a roaring good time at it, while giving great musical pleasure in the process.
The program could not have been less promising: three Greatest Hits by Mendelssohn and Berwald, including a piano concerto long since relegated to the sub-Rachmaninoff competition-repertoire, which means that you are not actually obligated to listen to it except insofar as it demonstrates the soloist’s technique, or reveals the shortcomings thereof. In the event, the whole program was revelatory.
Mendelssohn’s “Italian” symphony was done, not in the familiar original version of 1833, but in a revised version of the following year (published only in 2009, and still rarely heard), which makes substantial changes to the two inner movements: the famous pilgrim’s procession takes a different melodic direction, with darker instrumentation, while the scherzo floats mysteriously, where before it was coy, almost kittenish; these may turn out to be keepers on further hearing. The concerto featured a beautiful Regier fortepiano, which allowed a lot of the passage-work, which can easily sound empty on a modern concert grand, and far less difficult than we might assume it wants to be, to subside poetically into the broader texture.
The Berwald symphony got a beautiful reading, the only one in my experience that made this supposedly eccentric piece sound completely coherent. Much of this was due to conductor Thomas Crawford’s exquisite management of long-range dynamic progressions, but a lot of it was made possible by the sound of the instruments themselves. These woodwinds actually sound like field and forest, like what results over millennia after someone whittles a stick in a particular way, or hollows out a reed of grass. Their earthy solidity shifts the orchestra’s center of gravity downward, bringing out basses, trombones, and timpani, and all of a sudden Berwald’s twiddles and thumps, which can sound shrill and disjointed on more brilliant modern instruments, fall into place as secondary intensifiers of his magnificent directional bass-lines and his awesome pedal-points, both of which anticipate Sibelius. (You could hear something similar in the Mendelssohn symphony, which suddenly had “bottom”: it not only roared and stomped like Rome on a warm summer night, but showed very clearly what Mendelssohn took from Beethoven, and how much he and his frenemy Berlioz had in common.)
The soloist in the concerto was Adrian Romoff, just turned thirteen and already a veteran of Ellen, America’s Got Talent, Superkids, and Child Genius. Be that as it may, his performance was a model of taste, discipline, and sensitivity. His touch may not be as “exquisitely delicate” as Mendelssohn’s was said to have been—his fingers did not always “sing as they rippled over the keyboard”—and, mercifully, he doesn’t yet have the life-experience to make the opening of the Andante everything it can be, but all of this may come with time. As it is, he has beautiful posture and a fine, flexible hand, and he doesn’t mop and mow over the keyboard; instead, he is plainly thinking about the music and feeling it in his body, even when he isn’t playing. Apart from an entirely forgivable theatrical flourish over his final chord, there was nothing showy or false in his performance. This is all very promising, and very welcome.
Crawford had everything well in hand, including the pin-prick delicacy of Mendelssohn’s counterpoint, which often gets skated over or ignored, and his coordination with Romoff in the concerto’s slow movement rose to genuine poetry at many points. He sometimes scanted rests and pulled back from emphatic conclusions, as a lot of early-music specialists tend to do these days, but this was remarkably fine, strong work on the whole.
The orchestra appears to be such a committed, cohesive unit that it seems almost heretical to single anyone out. Still, Sandra Miller’s flute entry in the first movement of the Berwald, and bassists John Feeney, Tony Faluga, and Motomi Igarashi, and timpanist Dan Haskin’s accounts of Berwald’s repeated pedal-points, each one dense with a different set of possibilities, are sounds that I will not soon forget. The violas were perfection all night.
The American Classical Orchestra in concert at Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center, Saturday, September 16, 2017. Thomas Crawford, music director and conductor; Adrian Romoff, Fortepiano.
MENDELSSOHN: Piano Concerto in G minor,
MENDELSSOHN: Symphony No. 4, “Italian,”
BERWALD: Symphony No. 3, “Singulière”
Cover: American Classical Orchestra in a previous concert at David Geffen Hall; photo: Chris Lee.