Anthony Bannon | Guest Reviewer
I’m sorry that I have to challenge Maestro Litton like this, but I can’t let go a characterization that the Gerard Finzi piece for piano and strings he conducted and performed with the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra was “a palate cleanser.” It was not at all the sorbet the maestro promised Tuesday evening. It was not a parfait, either. It wasn’t even gelato.
It is true that Finzi’s short work called Ecologue Op. 10 is only 9 minutes long, and it is also true that it fit between what the conductor — speaking extemporaneously to the audience — called “two larger dishes”: Tchaikovsky’s Capriccio Italien Op. 45, which is 15 minutes long, and Franck’s Symphony in D Minor, which is all of 37 minutes.
One might argue that by sonic weight, the Finzi work is light, with far fewer occupied seats than either of the other two, which are full orchestra productions. Both the Tchaikovsky and the Franck employ a tuba, which is heavyweight against Finzi’s strings-only.
Maybe Litton was just being modest. I prefer to think it modesty, because he was the Finzi pianist and the conductor. It was, though, a modesty both unnecessary and, from my seat in the Amphitheater, misplaced.
That temporally slight work the maestro played, by the 20th-century Englishman (1901–1956), is the kind of sound miracle that seems capable of continuing forever. In culinary terms, it undersets the table and leaves the diner seeking more. And spiritually, it creates a place where an aesthetic of duration has no firm hold. The composition — aptly a fragment, the second movement of an unfinished concerto, worked on throughout four decades — has eternity on its side. Moreover, it was not performed until after the composer’s death and then first heard at his funeral.
An “ecologue” is a pastoral poem, usually in the form of a dialogue, employed since the ancient Greeks. One does hear the conversation in Finzi’s work, subtly complex, as the range of strings summon different shadings. And the piano, in Litton’s hands, has its own polyglot — lovely trills unexpectedly, or a slightly discordant stepping outside a chord, maintaining attention, calling the listener to focus, to discover an emotional truth, unexpectedly.
It feels like a sad, sweet philosophy — learned, yet melancholy. Simple, rich, eloquent.
The piano reaches, and reaches, quietly reaches and then touches the strings, and they turn together, and separate, a dance for the mind. One would never want to see it performed in a space — other than moving the mind in that sacred space of sound.
And then it ends with the cellos and a single chord from the piano. And you miss it.
Early on, the audience sensed it was in for a special evening, for the cymbal-ringing, horn-calling, tarantella-singing “Capriccio” by Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was just about as wonderful as it gets. Litton, who now leads the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra in Norway after more than a decade in Dallas, held the often voluptuously performed piece at first in a close, even guarded, restraint seeming to wait just a hair’s breath longer than expected before introducing the first themes.
The refinement pushed against a noisy night in the audience. The super-sneezer was out, and spasmodic cougher, and the droppers and late-arriving clompers, too. But Tchaikovsky did prevail. As with the Franck later, Litton choreographed a dynamic range in the orchestra’s voice that was most compelling. The orchestra was mighty and then shrewd, measured in its conduct, using even cymbals with delicacy.
The appreciation was palpable in the big Amphitheater space, noisemakers notwithstanding. This was good stuff, a rousing good time, clearly orchestrated — those swirling gusts of the wind instruments, a Tchaikovsky undercurrent as articulate as can be, and a pleasure for discernment. Yes, restrained at first, and then the measured conductor jumping in place to pound in the finale, big and dramatic — worth the wait of restraint.
Litton pointed out in his remarks to the audience that Cesar Franck, a Belgian contemporary of Tchaikovsky, was practiced as an organist. Litton pointed attention to that orientation of the composer heard in his symphony. And what a delight: The horns and the deep strings sounded the part of the organ.
Litton’s Franck would be impossible on anyone’s car radio, his swelling-up of the score building to high amplitude from someplace in the vicinity of silence for a joyride of music. The symphony is an exposition of the sublime — from darkness, from the silence, to the full vantage of the mountain top.
In musical theater, they say the play is a success if the audience leaves humming the tunes — and remembering them. In Franck’s symphony, the audience holds fast the themes of the first movement. They remain, an undercurrent beneath the surface, quick to return in the third movement, a masterpiece weave, after the sweet second movement where the voice of each of the instruments appears, especially beguiling in the English horn, called out with the French horns and timpani for the first bows.
It is a symphony filled with color, held with an architecture that yields the pleasure of surprise as it satisfies through its memorable songs.
Those were big moments indeed — the Franck and the Tchaikovsky, very well played. But the heart of the evening — not the dessert, not the respite — was the delicate, soulful Finzi.
Anthony Bannon is the executive director of the Burchfield Penney Art Center, a multi-arts presenter on the campus of Buffalo State College. Previously, he was an arts writer for The Buffalo News and director of George Eastman House in Rochester, N.Y.