Winning lineup with NSO’s presentation of the Three Bs

Published on September 22, 2014
Trio Benetri: (From left) Lynn Kuo (violin), Rafael Hoekman (cello), and Thomas Yee (piano), with concertmaster Nancy Case-Oates seated between Kuo and Hoekman.  — Photo courtesy of Greg Locke

The Newfoundland Symphony Orchestra’s (NSO) opening night concert, Masterworks 1, was proudly sponsored by The Telegram. Speaking for The Telegram and TC Media, in a good-humoured introduction, Peter Jackson called the Newfoundland Symphony one of the “best and biggest and greatest success stories.” It continues to improve with each passing season, outdoing its previous performances that seemed close to perfection.

There is an element of suspense in the 2014-15 season. The NSO has advertised for a new concertmaster and has narrowed the field of applicants from across the country to a short list of five who will be featured in the concertmaster’s chair, and in the Sunday evening recital series.

The guest concertmaster on Friday evening was Nancy Case-Oates, currently the principal second violin. While she had no solos Friday, I have long admired the uniquely sweet tone she draws from her instrument, and there were times when it seemed to me that the whole first violin section was playing more sweetly with her as concertmaster.

 Music director Marc David said on Friday and has written in his welcome message in the program booklet that the NSO invites feedback, “Come be part of the process! Let us know what you think!”

The program featured a winning lineup of composers, all German, sometimes referred to as the three Bs: Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms. I have a vivid memory of Walter Susskind, who conducted the Toronto Symphony Orchestra from 1956-65, saying with reverence that he considered them the three greatest composers.

Interestingly, the NSO’s version of Bach’s “Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme,” BWV 645, which Bach published as the first of six chorales for organ in 1748, was a transcription for orchestra by another renowned 20th-century conductor, whose name seems to have been inadvertently omitted from the program: the Hungarian-born Eugene Ormandy (1899-1985), music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra from 1938 to 1980. Ormandy’s setting was more than a transcription, it was an interpretation that availed of a larger orchestra than Bach had at his disposal.

Ormandy gradually added more and more instruments, turning the piece into a steady crescendo.

If this splendid example of contrapuntal composition began to sound familiar, it is because one of the two slow-moving parts, which in itself has a repetition, being in AAB form, is the well-known protestant hymn tune by the same name. According to the Hymnary website, it “appears in 68 hymnals in English.” (Wikipedia).

As mentioned in the program notes, the hymn, Bach’s source, was written by Philipp Nicolai (1556-1608), someone who definitely worked best when under stress. Gerhard Herz, in his book on “Wachet auf,” a Norton Critical Score, tells us that Nicolai was a pastor in Unna in Westphalia (still on the map!) when the Black Death coursed through Europe yet again. “While 1,300 of Unna’s inhabitants succumbed to the epidemic, Nicolai, expecting death himself, recorded his meditations. Having miraculously survived, he appended to the finished manuscript the two hymns” on which his musical reputation rests.

Bach first set the hymn for tenor voices singing Nicolai’s hymn in unison, surrounded by two-part orchestral counterpoint. It was the central part, Part IV, of his Cantata No. 140 by the same name. When he encountered difficulties getting his cantatas published, he resourcefully reduced this fourth Chorale to a work for two-manual organ with the hymn tune “plainly played on the 8’ Trompete” (Winfried Schrammek), thereby removing the words and stripping it of its religious context.

Ormandy follows Bach’s orchestration in Cantata No. 140 by giving the graceful, quick-moving line to the violins and violas, but instead of giving Nicolai’s melody to the trumpet, as Bach did in his transcription for organ, Ormandy gives it to the horns, thereby pointing to Nicolai’s model (the AAB form) in the medieval German Tagelied or dawn song, and returning us to a secular source. The characteristic figure of the Tagelied is the watchman, “who by his horn or his voice rouses the lovers from their ecstasy and insists upon their parting” (The Oxford Companion to German Literature).

The NSO’s excellent performance of “Wachet auf” should renew interest in this hymn, known in English as “Sleepers Awake,” whose two settings by Bach have caused it to echo down through the centuries.

The three guest artists of the evening, Lynn Kuo (violin), Rafael Hoeckman (cello), and Thomas Yee (piano), all started their musical training here, performed with the NSO at a young age, and formed Trio Benetri, meaning the good three. It has been about 10 years since they performed together; Kuo is now based in Toronto, Hoekman in Calgary, and Yee, enviably, in Hawaii. On Friday evening they played together with such good ensemble that you would never know they had been apart.

Kuo, who played standing up, wore an eye-catching robin’s egg blue gown; Hoekman was seated on a podium facing the audience, so one saw his cello, rather than what he was wearing; and Yee wore tails that hung down elegantly behind the piano bench.

They performed with the orchestra in Beethoven’s only triple concerto, the Concerto for Violin, Cello and Piano, Op. 56, in C Major. Every time the soloists enter in sequence in this concerto, the cello leads, and Hoekman certainly has something to say. He made his cello talk to the audience, commanding our attention, and Kuo answered his comments in a higher voice on her violin. The way they were positioned on stage, all to the left of the conductor, Hoekman and Kuo could make eye contact, whereas Yee needed eyes in the back of his head. To his credit, he did, when possible, turn his head in the direction of the player about to enter. So all three were nodding at each other, and all three were moving gracefully with the music. Yee, in particular, was able to transmit his strong sense of rhythm to the audience. I frequently found myself moving my shoulders in time to his playing. As always, Marc David kept the dynamic level of the orchestra below that of the soloists, so that no one was drowned out. All three soloists played with beautifully rounded phrasing, and marked dynamic contrasts, but if I had to say where Trio Benetri excels, what sets them apart from other trios, it is the strong mental line each of them showed in the cascading runs that took them down to the bottom range of their respective instruments. The audience loved the performance and could hardly wait to leap to its feet for a standing ovation.

The audience reception of this concerto provided a stark example of the great rift that sometimes develops between music as a performing art and musicology, or academic research in music. Musicologists have consistently found fault with Op. 56, calling the piano part, which Yee played so brilliantly, “not insuperable” (Burk) and “less than dazzling” (Plantinga). Lockwood describes the concerto as “a work of easy surface qualities but no depth.” Plantinga calls “the first movement prolix and the last awkward,” and Cooper says the middle movement, the Largo, “lacks great profundity (by Beethoven’s standards) and is less than fully developed.”

By way of contrast, musicologists have nothing but praise for the work that made up the second part of Friday’s concert: Brahms’ Symphony No. 2, Op. 73, in D major. It is the longest of Brahms’ four symphonies and was “thematically conceived from the start” (Brinkmann). Hurwitz points out that it flows so well because it has the “most highly varied metrical scheme both within and between its movements.” Frisch is impressed by how Brahms, in the first movement, “combines two apparently contradictory compositional impulses: expansive lyricism and dense motivic-thematic working.” Jacobson calls it the “most prodigious of all Brahms’ works in the wealth of material it extracts from the three-note figure of its first bar,” which is D-C#-D, and proceeds to write out 27 examples taken from all four movements which are “merely a selection taken from hundreds of instances.” He shows how the theme is modified by presentation in dialogue, “inversion, retrograde, extension, and augmentation.” Knapp expands that to a close look at the first 44 bars and writes a chapter on them entitled “Patterned Variation and Ostinato,” an apt description, because the reason why this concerto is so instantly appealing, indeed comforting to listen to, is that almost every phrase is repeated or modified in some recognizable way. From its quiet beginning, Brahms’ second symphony progresses like a civil conversation among friends who expand on each other’s ideas, ending in unanimous acclamation.

On Friday evening, even without repeating the 186-measure exposition in the first movement, the performance of the symphony took 39 minutes and 52 seconds, with pauses between the four movements. Maestro David conducted it by heart — he has a phenomenal memory — as if he were composing the work, taking us right inside Brahms’ mental space. Marc David is not afraid to take liberties with the tempo, not afraid to slow down and let the orchestra get very quiet. He does so in a way that draws the audience in all the more. Although I’ve been listening to various recordings for months, I found myself leaning forward in my seat, as if hearing the symphony for the first time.

David is not an ostentatious conductor. He uses minimalist movements to achieve maximum effect, always balancing the dynamic levels of the various instruments, listening intently and making slight adjustments so that all is clear, nothing muddy. He set a relaxed pace in each movement, allowing the themes to be heard in all their melodic beauty.

The second movement is the only Adagio in all of Brahms’ symphonies and begins with a singing descending line in the cellos, repeated, of course, with variation. The NSO has a superb cello section.

In the third movement, as indicated in the score, the orchestra used staccato in the woodwinds and strings that lent the Allegretto grazioso a delightful lightness I hadn’t heard in recordings.

Only in the fourth movement, Allegro con spirito, did Maestro David have to rein in the orchestra as they wanted to anticipate the triumphant coda.

When they got there, he let them speed up for tremendous effect, with drum rolls on the timpani, and the full orchestra playing. It’s an ending that outdid “everything that the symphony orchestra had produced so far” (Brinkmann).

Brahms’ second is also his only symphony that uses a tuba, for “a touch of extra lustre” (Hurwitz), and for a unified dark brass sound that can be accomplished on one instrument without switching from trombone to trombone. I mention this specifically because on Oct. 18, the Sinfonia 1 concert is featuring the tuba player, Karen Bulmer, both in the Concertina for Tuba and String Orchestra by Jan Koetsier (1911-2006), and in Bulmer’s much lauded one-woman show, “Girl Meets Tuba.”

But back to the orchestra,  there are  outstanding and new players, in terms. Principal flute Grace Dunsmore is playing more and more expressively. She sits in the centre of the orchestra, where her silver flute catches the light in a pleasing manner. Her daughter-in-law, Emily Dunsmore, is the new principal horn, whose confident playing contributed significantly to the concert.

Heather Kao, associate concertmaster, is one of the very capable contenders for the position of Concertmaster.

Her brother, Andy Kao, now also plays violin in the orchestra, as does Nina Weber, who won the Junior Rosebowl in the Kiwanis Festival this past winter, and is the daughter of the principal cello, Theo Weber.

The gentleman seated on my right, who has apparently attended the concerts for many years, was the first to leap to his feet after the Brahms and shout “bravo,” thereby initiating another standing ovation. He commented afterwards, “I really like this orchestra.” There were hundreds in the audience who would agree.

I am grateful to professional photographer Greg Locke, who is on the board of directors of the NSO, and to CEO Neil Edwards, for kindly acceding to my request for a photo taken during the performance.