Although New York is the place of superlatives, it might seem to some that the best historical instrument orchestra in this city is the best baseball team in Abu Dhabi. But while ideological storms rage around history-making performances in London or Boston, is it authentic? what does it mean to be authentic, as long as it sounds good?—Gotham’s own American Classical Orchestra, founded decades ago and still conducted by Thomas Crawford, goes its merry way each season with the humble goal as reflected in the biography of the The program means “inviting the audience to join in the sound world of the great masters.”
Crawford and his band renewed that invitation Thursday night at Alice Tully Hall with a season opener featuring two composers who expanded the definition of “classical” (Ludwig van Beethoven and Franz Schubert), one who seemed to defy definition altogether (Carl Philip Emmanuel Bach). , and an undeniably brilliant solo role by Hungarian fortepianist Petra Somlai.
The conductor began the evening, as is customary on these occasions, with a brief oral summary of his printed program notes, alluding to musical illustrations by the orchestra. Crawford’s brilliant presentation held attention for a while, but he received the loudest applause when he offered to finish the lecture and begin the musical performance.
Still, it was good that he had alerted listeners to what to expect from CPE Bach, a highly eccentric apple that landed a long way from the tree of his famous father, JS Bach. There were moments during Son’s Symphony in F major, Wq. 183/3, when the crazy modulations and non-sequitures abounded so densely that one wondered if CPE’s fictional brother PDQ Bach had come into play.
But amid all this “shock value,” as Crawford called it, the conductor successfully managed orchestral textures ranging from powerful tutti to just one or two instruments tossing a phrase around, particularly during the mournful Larghetto. The symphony ended with a scurrying presto dotted with sudden pauses, switching from forte dynamics to piano and back.
Adding to the composer’s intentional misdirection and disorientation, it sometimes seemed as if the orchestra had difficulties of their own with coordination and mood. But the strong personality of the composer, whom Joseph Haydn called “the great Bach,” came through clearly.
Another, even more powerful composer personality shone in the performance of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor by the fortepianist Somlai. After Crawford and the orchestra set the stage with a robust, rhythmically precise exposition, Somlai immediately demonstrated the range of her period instrument, a Rod Regier recreation based on a design by Beethoven’s contemporary Conrad Graf. Scales flashed, octaves rattled, a gentle answer caressed, and with a little help from Tully Hall’s benign acoustics, it was easy to leave Steinways behind and enter Beethoven’s ‘world of sound’.
Somlai played in time but with delightfully malleable phrasing, taking full advantage of her instrument’s biting attacks in forte and subtle nuances in softer passages. Her rich musical imagination was evident throughout, particularly in the first movement’s cadenza, which was alternately boisterous and dreamy. After she and the orchestra crafted an exciting coda, the audience gleefully broke the taboo of inter-movement applause.
The rapt Largo was all about dialogue: between a delicate solo instrument and rich orchestral textures, aglow with horns and muted strings; between a babbling fortepiano and glowing brass solos; and between a simple melody and flowery cantabile passages. The sharp attack of the fortepiano introduced the rondo finale in style, and orchestra and audience alike seemed to enjoy the cadential flourishes of the “Wait for it” (Entry), which led back to the main topic each time. With Somlai’s digital prowess, the Eile coda sounded particularly dazzling on the period instrument, bringing the concerto to an exciting close.
The rhythmic precision that so enlivened the Beethoven performance took a vacation in the first movement of Schubert’s Symphony No. 5 in B flat major, D. 485, at least in the softer passages and the lyrical second subject, where the phrases blurred a bit and the beats tended to trip over each other. In the fast tempo, tasty details like the violins’ scurrying first phrase went almost unnoticed. The forte marcato moments went much better rhythmically.
The 19-year-old Schubert had not yet cultivated the “heavenly length” of his later works, so this spare Mozart symphony is initially a brief encounter. Performed on Thursday without the implied repeats in the first and last movements and at the fast tempi now in vogue, it seemed to fly by. But there were joys along the way, as in the Andante con moto, where a gentle 8th-note drumbeat cured some initial rhythmic problems and a subtle chemistry of silvery strings, mature horns and glittering woodwinds delighted the ear.
The minuet, marked Allegro molto, skipped like a scherzo but at just the right moment, with invigorating effect. The more relaxed tempo of the major trio, not indicated in the score, nonetheless suited the moment. The succinct finale in sonata form without a coda was characterized by harmonious rhythms and a creative mix of orchestral colors, especially in the adventurous development.
The American Classical Orchestra, conducted by Thomas Crawford, performs Mozart’s Requiem and the premiere of Thomas Crawford’s with Yulan Piao, soprano, Heather Petrie, mezzo-soprano, Lawrence Jones, tenor, Joseph Charles Beutel, bass, and the ACO Chorus elegy 10 p.m. October 28 at Alice Tully Hall. aconyc.org.