New York City, USA: Monday 2 October 2000
For the past four decades the music center of New York has been Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. This upper west-side acropolis of the 1960s is the site of world-class performances of largely standard standard-repertoire in venues of uneven acoustics. Behind and adjacent the Juilliard School of the Lincoln Center complex lies the Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church. Not unlike Rotwang's house in Fritz Lang's Metropolis, this structure lies tucked away largely unnoticed amongst its marble clad neighbors and nearby skyscraperlettes. It is also the unlikely home of the Jupiter Symphony Orchestra and the home of some most remarkable music making. A small billboard on one the church's doors modestly announces each week's concert.
Characteristic of the interesting repertoire performed bythe Jupiter Symphony was the series of concerts given on October 2nd and 3rd 2000 devoted solely to the music of Joachim Raff. An occasion to hear either the Lenore Symphony or the Ode to Spring would be cause to take notice; to hear both on the same concert, along with three charming short works by Raff (a march, a mazurka, and the Cavatina), is something slightly short of astonishing. This all Raff concert was my first opportunity to hear the Jupiter Symphony in concert and I was well rewarded by making the trip.
Churches are used as concert venues less frequently in the United States than in some other parts of the world. This is a loss, as acoustics such as those of the Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church are often quite fine. The Jupiter Symphony adopts an unusual placement within the church. Rather than being arranged near the altar facing forward, it is spread along the left side of the nave. The audience also sits in rows arranged roughly parallel to the central longitudinal space rather than conventional church seating. This is all made possible as there are no fixed pews. It allows the audience more proximal seating to the orchestra and, I suspect, reduces the echo found in many places of worship had it been playing in the more conventional arrangement at the far end of the nave. The orchestra is of 19th Century proportions with fewer than 20 strings, and an ensemble of about 40.
At the entrance to the church the orchestra sells used records and books to help raise funds. A poster highlights the life and career of conductor Jens Nygaard (A reprint of "A Musical Voyage" from the 4 March 1998 issue of the New York Times). It introduces the reader to a man for whom the word "maverick" seems especially coined. This concert was part of the orchestra's "Lest we forget" series featuring works that should be rehabilitated to today's concert programs. Another this season will be devoted solely to music of the 19th century Danish master, NW Gade. The concerts have an informal style and Mr. Nygaard, who is wired with a portable microphone, usually introduces each work.
He began the concert with a brief recount of the unsung saga of Raff and his music ending with a quote attributed to Tchaikovsky: "Raff is a giant." "And you will know it!" added Mr. Nygaard. Before starting he excused himself and went off stage to fetch some chopsticks, his preferred baton; this was followed by a short discourse on using these utensils as a conductor.
The concert began with the March from The Incidental Music to Bernhard von Weimar. The sound was rich and warm and seemed to be coming from an orchestra substantially larger than the forces before us. The march is immediately recognizable as from Raff's pen and reminds the listener of march-like melodies from Raff's later symphonies. It served to nicely balance this program with famous march from the fifth symphony to come after intermission. The Mazurka from the Fantasy Dances was a delight and offered a pleasant contrast to the preceding march.
The orchestral version of the Cavatina was next on the program. It was played with romantic abandon by Janet Sung, the concertmistress of this afternoon performance. Her playing was warm and expressive, sounding very Tchaikovskian in particular in the middle section. The first half of the concert ended with Ode to Spring. The pianist Jung Lin played the work with intensity and from memory. Ms. Lin produces, like the Jupiter Symphony, a quantity of sound that belies her small stature. The performance was appropriately brisk and nicely balanced by conductor Nygaard. The prominent 'cello and oboe solos were particularly well played. I must confess that I have always found the final subject of this work a bit goofy. However, it was played with so much energy and abandon that one could not help but be captivated. On several occasions stand partners were seen to glance at each other, smile knowingly, and continue the vigorous finale. Ms. Lin delighted the appreciative audience by performing, also from memory, Raff's etude "La Fileuse" as an encore.
After the intermission, Mr. Nygaard recognized the efforts of the Joachim Raff Society and introduced the Lenore Symphony by reading from that section of the Raff Society Web Pages. The performance was excellent. Full of Raff's characteristic geniality with a strong forward motion but with one that was never rushed. Once again the quantity and quality of the orchestral sound was very satisfying. The opening Allegro was well balanced with phrasing that I found very effective. Mr. Nygaard spent considerable effort at successfully adjusting dynamics throughout the symphony in order to balance the relatively large wind and brass sections with the modest string forces. The Andante was relaxed and achieved the bliss characterizing the program nature of the work. It was played with a geniality that the composer himself would have found satisfying. The third movement march can often be played with bombast (cf. Herrmann's commercial recording). Not here. It was martial yet without a hint of heavy-handedness. In the middle Agitato section of this movement the difficult violin passages were well played, but here for the only time could one wish for another dozen string players to enhance the frenzied effect. Although a percussionist was noted in the program none was present this afternoon. The timpanist, Charles Kiger, admirably changed to snare and triangle when necessary in an effective manner. I doubt that anyone unfamiliar with the Fifth Symphony would sense that something was missing. The finale was a horse ride to remember, full of energy with shrieking woodwinds and prominent brass. The gentle conclusion was appropriately mystical and hushed. The fine acoustics of the church contributed to the overall effect.
In all a program and afternoon to long remember: a well-balanced selection of Raff at his most typical and some of his finest music.