Orlando Phil Adds Twist Of Berg To Its Season Opener

Founding member of Brooklyn Rider and The Knights, Eric Jacobsen is music director of the Orlando Philharmonic. (Photo by Bob Turner)

ORLANDO – Music from the Second Viennese School is something of a rare bird on classical concert programs in Central Florida, which has traditionally favored standard repertoire. But the Orlando Philharmonic has more recently welcomed 20th century and contemporary pieces, thanks not least to Eric Jacobsen, the progressive New York-bred conductor and cellist currently serving his second season as music director of Orlando’s foremost classical music organization.

The former cellist of Brooklyn Rider has turned to conducting.
(Sarah Small)

A founding member of the genre-bending string quartet Brooklyn Rider, Jacobsen stepped away from his cellist seat in early 2016 to focus on his blossoming conducting career. Selected for the Philharmonic’s top artistic position after an intensive two-year international search, Jacobsen, 34, is also a co-founder and artistic director of the chamber orchestra The Knights and is serving his third season as music director of the Greater Bridgeport Symphony in Connecticut.

With a superlative grip on orchestral forces and his distinctive youthful flair, Jacobsen remarkably lifted the ensemble to higher artistic ground on the Philharmonic’s season opener Oct. 1, at downtown Orlando’s Bob Carr Theater. Adding spice to a program weighted with Russian masterworks was Berg’s Violin Concerto of 1935.

Steven Copes, concertmaster of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra and avid performer of contemporary music, was the soloist. But before launching into the piece, Copes and Jacobsen – with accompaniment from the orchestra – previewed several sections. The demonstration covered no fewer than five sections (including two waltzes, one folk song, and a timpani-led passage with Jacobsen clapping along to the irregular beat), as well as the mournful Bach chorale that caps the concerto. There was no mention, however, of the most alluring aspect of the piece: Berg’s lyrical 12-tone theme that forms the thematic basis for most of it.

Steven Copes, an avid performer of contemporary music, was soloist in the Berg.

At the request of violinist Louis Krasner, who commissioned the piece in the last year of the composer’s life, Berg accomplished a fusion of the lyrical qualities of the Romantic tradition and the mathematical method of 12-tone composition. The chamber orchestra reduction by Faradsch Karaew, used for this performance, brings the string section down to a compact two violins, and one each of viola, cello, and bass, which sounded especially clear and attuned to each other.

Playing from a score, Copes shaped his phrases with elan, managing subtle crescendos as he climbed up the fret board in swirly patterns. In quieter phrases during the first movement, though, he tended to get buried under the busy texture in the ensemble. But then again he was vehement and acrid in the second half of the concerto, matching the prevalent unsettling mood.

In the allegro section of the second movement the ensemble captured the anxious dissonance of the opening chord, even with reduced instrumentation. With riveting work from horn and trombone, adjacent tones piled up into a jarring expressionistic cluster in one of the concerto’s harshest moments.

And finally the consonance of the Bach chorale “Es ist genug” (“It is enough”), from his cantata O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort (BWV 60), arrived as a semblance of hope – a fitting end to a concerto inspired by the death of 18-year-old Manon Gropius, Alma Mahler’s daughter. Soulfully intoned by the woodwinds and then taken by the soloist, the chorale sounded blissful in its tonal stability, coming after a tortuous journey that Jacobsen described as “incredibly painful.” Featuring well-balanced ensemble interplay, the first-time Philharmonic performance of the concerto captured the full semi-expressionistic flavor of Berg’s most widely performed instrumental work.

Steven Copes, right, played the Berg concerto in a chamber reduction.

The rest of the program consisted of selections from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet Suites 1 and 2, and Tchaikovsky’s effusive Symphony No. 4. Following a sustained horn motif, Prokofiev’s opening orchestral din of “The Montagues and Capulets” was plangent but refined; dynamic control across instrumental families allowed each to sound with clear voice. The famous “Dance of the Knights” came across majestically in strings undergirded by a brawny tuba. The heat of expressivity was turned up for the closing “Death of Tybalt,” with resounding bangs from the timpani that were echoed by the relentless thunderstorm outside the hall.

The Philharmonic’s lavish performance of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth closed the evening jubilantly. From the opening measures, Jacobsen paid studious attention to dynamics. Trumpets and lower brasses smoothly joined the opening horn fanfare, and the long first movement featured beautifully articulated tuttis with strings providing a strong melodic foundation and timpani blows aggressively rolling in. The brass section was in top shape; the string tremolos in the final climax were resplendent.

Composer Lisa Bielawa is winner of the Rome Prize.
Coming in December 2016, a new work by composer Lisa Bielawa.

Principal oboe Jamie Strefeler’s sound glistened in the second movement as she infused the somber minor-key melody with a slight rubato feel. The string pizzicatos of the third movement were delightfully distributed across sections (with violas sitting downstage in the outside, to the right of the conductor). Horns mellifluously tapered off the main fanfare of the opening, and ear-shattering cymbal splashes resounded in the orchesta’s triumphant finale

The Philharmonic’s new interest in contemporary music picks up on Dec. 3 and 4, with the world premiere of American composer and vocalist Lisa Bielawa’s Drama/Self Pity for Orchestra. The 2009 Rome Prize-winning composer has been performed by the New York Philharmonic and the San Francisco Symphony. The program is balanced by Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 2, with soloist Emanuel Ax.

Also featured in several concerts throughout the season will be short pieces by John Adams, in celebration of his 70th birthday next February. The Philharmonic’s upcoming offerings will include a scaled-down concert on Jan. 16 at the hybrid concert venue The Plaza Live, featuring Jacobsen’s brother Colin. The violinist-composer, a founding member of Brooklyn Rider and The Knights, will be the soloist in a bird-themed program that includes Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending and Beethoven’s Violin Concerto.

For details, visit orlandophil.org.

The Orlando Philharmonic performed its 2016-17 season opener at the downtown Bob Carr Theater.