Old School Rules: Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique with John Eliot Gardiner at the Kennedy Center, November 19, 2011

On Saturday afternoon, one difference between the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique and the modern-instrument orchestras that typically set up in the Kennedy Center’s Concert Hall was clear even before the opening smack-in-the-face chords of Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Egmont” overture — the orchestra occupied maybe half of the chairs that, say, the National Symphony would have. The ORR, as conceived by its founder, conductor, and artistic director John Eliot Gardiner, tries to make music in the manner and spirit of the time the music was composed, which here meant that reduced forces had to try to fill with sound a much larger hall than those in which this all-Ludwig program would have first been heard.

Still, those chords did indeed deliver a proper smack, which speaks to the ORR’s virtues. First, where a modern orchestra sounds plush and rounded, the ORR sounds leaner and sometimes rougher. Even when played with exceptional skill, their instruments often have a bit of a rasp or a tang to them, and they’re never as loud. The period horn, a fiendishly difficult instrument to play, tends to wobble a bit or even crack (though I only heard one crack on Saturday in two solid hours of concert). The kettledrums actually do make a more smack-like sound than modern timpani. The flute sounds tentative, almost brave for standing up among the others and making itself heard, but also seduces with overtones.

Another factor in smack-delivery: Under Gardiner, these ladies and gentlemen sounded as tight as the 70s incarnation of James Brown’s band, even while untangling counterpoint more complex than anything Brown threw at Maceo Parker. (I am not saying Maceo couldn’t have done it.)  Rhythms stayed super-sharp even when shifting or not as prominent; melodies sang out in unison. With that unanimity and the intensity of effort at getting these instruments to make properly orchestral sounds, everything felt alive, bristling with potential.

And so it was that we began “Egmont.” Consistent with period-performance practice, Gardiner pressed forward with his tempos here and throughout the concert, but he didn’t let those tempos straitjacket him — when he took his pauses in “Egmont,” he drew them out and made them count, leaving me a little breathless on one occasion.

It helped that the ORR can actually play at said fleet tempos without sounding hurried. This proved especially useful in the first movement of LvB’s third symphony, the “Eroica,” which acquired a heroic sweep from the contour of its melodies and Beethoven’s relentless development of them rather than a pace slowed by a desire for stateliness. Their “Eroica” also showed how dense with invention this symphony is: Details and countermelodies that often get drowned out in modern-instrument performances by whatever section is playing loudest at the time here emerged in natural proportion and counter-proportion. The development teemed with activity; at times, each section seemed to be separately trying to work out the problems of a knotty dissonance or a sudden change of key, which sharpened the surprise when Beethoven pulled a solution out of thin air.

The rest of “Eroica” was a revelation as well: the perfectly pointed fugato development of the second movement’s funeral march theme, the ridiculously talented horn players (Anneke Scott, Joe Walters, Jorge Renteria Campos, and Chris Larkin) romping through their ridiculously hard trio from the Scherzo, the finale ablaze with color and drama. Never have I felt as satisfied to hear the “Prometheus” theme emerge after Beethoven spends so long teasing us with its harmonic underpinnings; never have the subsequent variations seemed so much like a novel in music, with the theme’s transformations composing the narrative.

I tend to avoid concerts featuring Beethoven’s Fifth because overfamiliarity has dimmed its charms for me. In the iconic first movement, Gardiner and the ORR played splendidly; having been extremely spoiled by this point in the concert, I was disappointed not to feel the excitement of hearing something new. The second movement, though, normally sounds to me like a swamp of brass taking a curious melodic idea and making it sound awkwardly grandiose; with the less opulent, more transparent sounds of the ORR (and Gardiner’s careful management thereof), you could actually hear all the parts that Beethoven had written, and suddenly the movement made sense. Gardiner has a sure sense for shaping a melody, obviously, but even by Saturday’s standards the third movement of the Fifth excelled; the pizzicato tiptoe up to the bridge to the finale, in particular, flowed along deliciously. The finale, also a brass swamp in many conventional performances, here sounded as good as I’ve ever heard it.

This review is at an exhaustive length now, but I could go on enumerating virtues for paragraphs and paragraphs. Let’s just end with my sincere thanks to the Washington Performing Arts Society for bringing Gardiner and the ORR to the DMV. This will likely end up being the best concert I see this year.

Other People’s Perspectives: Charles T. Downey, Joe Banno. Also, you can hear their concert three days earlier at Carnegie Hall (substituting the Seventh for the Third) here. And here’s a fascinating blog from the ORR’s Beethoven tour.

RONDO ALLA ACCIDENTE

I don’t normally cover out-of-town ensembles on DMV Classical, because that’s not really the point of the blog. But I had to go see these dudes because I was a big fan in high school, and you know how much you love things that you loved in high school. In fact, when I had just gotten my driver’s license, the first order of business was to make cassette tapes of all my favorite music so I could cruise around in my parents’ Ford Taurus station wagon bopping to said tunes. (Someday, young people, your methods of music intake will seem just as antiquated.) Gardiner’s set of the Beethoven symphonies with the ORR had just come out, and I was bowled over by the unstoppable dance energy of his rendition of the Seventh’s outer movements, so it was a natural for taping.

One afternoon, I had just loaded a bunch of rocks into the back of the Taurus for a friend’s art project (my mind has erased further details), and we were headed back to school where the project was being assembled. The Seventh was blasting through the speakers, and JEG and the ORR were blazing through the finale. The light ahead of me was red, but it was just half a bar until the closing chord – I thought I had plenty of time to let the symphony conclude and stop when Beethoven did. I had forgotten about the rocks. The result was no damage to the gigantic pickup truck ahead of me, but a bent hood on my parents’ wagon, which in the grand tradition of auto body repairs cost a sum of money to fix that was nearly incomprehensible to both me and my parents. (I was lucky they didn’t make me pay for it.)

Do I blame this accident on the JEG/ORR performance of the Seventh? No, obviously. Was it a contributing factor in my incompetent operation of a motor vehicle? Yes, definitely. And while I love many different recordings, I have only ever loved one enough to operate a motor vehicle unsafely because of it. Plus, the accident happened on Veirs Mill Road in that netherland between Wheaton and Rockville, so covering this concert is totally within the scope of DMV Classical, right?

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