By Dennis D. Rooney
The Symphonia opened its new season at St. Andrew’s School’s Roberts Auditorium on Nov. 13 with a program that featured guest conductor Andrés Cárdenes, who was also the soloist in the program’s final selection, Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5 (in A, K. 219), which has the nickname “Turkish” due to an A minor episode in the finale that emulates Janissary music.
What this concerto has to do with the program’s ostensible theme — Fire — was not readily apparent to this listener. Rather, the work, composed in Salzburg in 1775, is the epitome of the style galant, which prefers simple melodies and an absence of musical complexity, particularly counterpoint. Regardless of how it’s characterized, Cárdenes played a performance that was an exemplar of refined musical style, with a warm tone that was beautifully nested within the orchestra.
He made every Eingang (a place for a brief improvisation from the soloist) special, including the ones that most violinists ignore. Unfortunately, he was plagued by faulty horn playing. They didn’t have much to play but it was harmonically significant, and the repeated clams were annoying.
The program opener was Signs of Life II by Russell Peck (1945-2009), a Detroit native who ended his days at the University of North Carolina. This three-movement work for strings had its premiere by the Boston Symphony in 1996. An earlier two-movement version had been played by the Milwaukee Symphony, and a review called it “elevator music.” The reference is dated. One doesn’t hear much music in elevators anymore, more often in supermarkets and drugstores, where the purpose seems to be to keep the customers moving in and out without delay.
My only reaction to that earlier critical brickbat is that I only wish I could hear such music in elevators as this unchallenging, attractive work for string orchestra. Signs of Life II has some vernacular elements, and occasionally suggests the entertainment music of Leroy Anderson. The Allegro, Arioso and Presto consume about a quarter of an hour. What it has do to with fire was, again, not discernible. The Symphonia strings played it well.
Haydn’s Symphony No. 59 (in A) was composed sometime before 1770, placing it amid the composer’s earlier symphonies. It is dubbed Feuer Sinfonia (Fire Symphony) in an early manuscript, which might refer to the composer’s use of some of it for a play produced at Eszterháza, the princely palace where Haydn resided for many years, titled Die Feuersbrunst (The Conflagration) by Gustav Friedrich Wilhelm Grossmann. Aside from that connection, conflagration is nowhere suggested in its four movements as much as the experimentation with the symphonic form that occupied Haydn during this period of symphonies that have become known as the Sturm und Drang symphonies.
In this work, a Presto opening movement is followed by the first of two movements in the same key and meter: The Andante o più tosto Allegretto, in which winds and horns enter only at the recapitulation; and a succeeding minuet and trio. The finale, an Allegro, is colored by the florid clarino-register style for horns common in the early- to mid-18th century, when pairs of traveling hornists would go from court to court and perform with the resident orchestras. Such high-register parts are difficult to negotiate on modern instruments and the players on this occasion were not up to the challenge. The tessitura was littered with wrong notes, enough to seriously disfigure the musical texture.
Before the concert began, principal conductor Alastair Willis, introducing the program, made a meal of Andrés Cárdenes’s surname, not once but three times. He tried to laugh it off, but it wasn’t funny. Such an expression of disrespect for the guest conductor was inexcusable and required an apology.