No power? No problem.

 

Guest violinist Joan Kwuon performs the Prokofiev G minor Violin Concerto with the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra. Photo by Demetrius Freeman.

John Chacona | Guest Reviewer

Weird night last night.

I should have known that something was amiss at Chautauqua when I found a parking space at the bottom of the lot close to the exit. Paradoxically, the failure of a transformer earlier in the day and the resultant loss of electrical power increased the noise level on the grounds as gasoline-powered generators chugged away.

The Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra chugged away, too, in a truncated concert in a semi-darkened Amphitheater last night, but the lack of power wasn’t a consequence of the transformer as much as it was of the heat.

Musicians are mortal like the rest of us, and nobody likes to work outside when temperatures are in the mid-90s. Moreover, in hot weather, instruments are hard to keep in tune. Humidity is an enemy, too. So the climatic deck was stacked against the CSO yesterday.

After President Tom Becker made an announcement about the power outage (in a polo shirt and shorts!), Marty Merkley told the slightly thin crowd (many had left to seek food as well as air conditioning) that the program would be shortened so that symphony patrons might find their way home before dark.

The initial movement of the Prokofiev G minor Violin Concerto and the first three movements of the Dvořák Symphony No. 8 were sacrificed, a decision that was both vexatious and merciful.

Under the circumstances, it seems unfair to offer a review in the normal sense of the term. Does a restaurant critic judge a restaurant solely on the amuse bouche and the dessert?

So I’ll report on what I heard, namely that the CSO players, under conductor Christopher Seaman’s direction, delivered a tidy and sonorous account of the “Meistersinger” overture, with the strings sounding surprisingly rich and well-tuned.

The Prokofiev began with the slow movement, and though it’s not unusual to play individual movements of works in certain settings, starting a work in the middle is rather like reading a book beginning with chapter four. One can get a sense of the author’s style, but not the message. I think the orchestra was a little unnerved, too, as some of the ensemble work was a bit tentative.

Was violinist Joan Kwuon’s small tone a function of the heat, the change in program or was it anomalous? It’s impossible to know, but my heart went out to her in what had to be a thankless assignment, and certainly not the one for which she prepared. The closing pages of the brilliant finale arrived with more relief than triumph.

It was a pity that the Dvořák G major Symphony had to take the hit, because this is supremely outdoor music, and summer music, too. Full of juicy Bohemian folk melodies and the composer’s amiability of utterance, it would have been nice to hear all of it.

Conductor Seaman gave the downbeat before both his feet hit the podium surface, and it was off to the races. The finale was played very fast, with principal flutist Richard Sherman puffing hard to keep up. Not that it didn’t work — sort of. Standing alone, the movement was an undiscovered Slavonic Dance, an encore piece to the half-hour or so concert that preceded it. Like I said, it was a strange night.

By the time you read this — not by candlelight, as Becker warned of the tragic potential of candles and open windows — power should have been restored, but the heat is a more intractable problem than is electricity, and the CSO has a hugely ambitious program on Saturday, with two sets of soloists and a chorus. It may be the highlight of the season. Let’s hope that it may be heard under ideal conditions.

John Chacona is a freelance writer for the Erie Times-News.

There are 2 comments

  1. marston

    From where I was sitting, in the middle of the audience, Ms. Kwuon’s tone was full and glorious, as befits her well-deserved reputation. The second movement of the Concerto is marked ‘PIANO’ and, without hearing the contrasting first movement, might seem an overly gentle start to a performance. But no more so than the haunting opening bars of that very first movement. The second movement is nuanced and intimate as are most traditional middle movements, and it probably would have been better to allow Ms. Kwuon, as the featured soloist, to play the entire concerto and sacrifice the Wagner, which is heard so often it’s practically pop music. You are absolutely correct that the ‘message’ of the Concerto is lost when played only in excerpt.

    An interesting psychological effect can often occur during underlit performances. one often seems to strain to HEAR a soloist whom one cannot clearly SEE. In this instance, there was minimal stage lighting for the orchestra, and no lighting at all downstage for Ms. Kwuon and Maestro Seaman. The ensemble walked onstage practically in the dark.

    The Prokofiev G minor Concerto is a devilishly challenging work for a performer in the best of conditions. Given the brutal heat and humidity, the lack of electrical power, and the ill-conceived truncation of the works, MY experienced ear still felt it was a moving and sonorous performance.

Comments are closed.