March 11, 2008

Camerata Nordica Dialogues Through Music

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A real delight for those who came to Bailey Hall last Friday night despite Ithaca’s inclement weather, Camerata Nordica performed a dazzling program of chamber works. Their communicative playing was especially evident since as a camerata, they performed without a conductor, standing and swaying or madly sawing as each piece required. Their composed faces belied the enormous energy each player gave off as he or she exchanged expressive looks and even more meaningful sounds in what resembled a conversation of ideas, as interpreted through music.
Camerata Nordica’s virtuosity and versatility were both exemplified in the first piece by Sibelius, “Romance in C Major.” It was memorable for its galloping cellos which underscored a slightly ominous theme, a theme whose mood was intensified by these subtle but persistent notes of unease. Constantly, the energy of the phrases dwindled out into the quiet scratchings of the first violinist, a man of incredible ability. But what most impressed me was how synchronized the players were, even without a conductor. Clearly their intense practicing, combined with their mastery of communicating with each other musically, allowed them to effortlessly do something as seemingly simple but actually quite difficult as successfully pluck a string simultaneously. The piece itself was not what one might expect when one hears “romance.” In fact, several portions approached the sense of alienation and despair more typical of modern music, as exemplified in the next piece played, “Concerto for String Orchestra, No. 1” by the Swedish composer Allan Pettersson.
Pettersson’s concerto had the feel of a something innocent or innocuous that had been corrupted into an instrument of death and destruction. From the very beginning — if it could be called a beginning — the camerata plunged into an intense cycle of discordant, irritating sounds that didn’t join so much as clash. There were great dynamic contrasts, as the first violins might shout a theme at the seconds who would echo it back, eerily altered. But the conversation was quite different in this piece than in the others since the groups of instruments, and even the individuals, constantly repeated themselves in different tones, sometimes exuberantly, at others despondently or meekly. Despite these efforts, however, it didn’t seem like the musical ideas were communicating very well; repetitious patterns followed each other, never reaching any resolution. But this very modern sound, masterfully rendered by the camerata in all its intensity, eventually dulled the hearing as each new frightful outcry stifled the urgency of the others. It was this very modern idea of overwhelming but ignored despair that distinguished this piece from the others.
Certainly the work by Tchaikovsky, “Serenade for Strings in C Major,” did not exhibit this sense of alienation, though the composer was no stranger to violent emotion. This was clear from the very first movement, which is filled with longing. Soon though, this longing and discontent gave way to the widely heard (and therefore hard to truly hear) waltz. Although the piece, when (usually) played alone, suggests a joyful tone, in the context of the serenade it was marked with a tinge of melancholy. The most impressive movement, however, is the third, “Elegie.” In it, one discovers swelling dynamics, unfinished phrases and overwhelming sounds, which further develop the state of emotional turmoil. That the same group of musicians can play such a movement so evocatively and follow it with a finale of so much energy that the sounds skip over each other even if the players don’t is clear evidence of the greatness and versatility of the orchestra.
By the end of the performance, this extraordinarily talented group of Scandinavians had all the audience members on their feet clapping for an encore, a request they fulfilled with their usual genius.