Ridgefield Symphony Orchestra review: High Art

Labeled High Art, Ridgefield Symphony Music Director Yuga Cohler’s concert last Saturday evening, this time at the Ridgefield Playhouse, featured cellist Jay Campbell as guest soloist for Joseph Haydn’s Cello Concerto No. 1 in C Major in a wide-ranging program that also included Anton Webern’s atonal Six Pieces for Orchestra and Ottorino Respighi’s musically descriptive Trittico Botticelliano.

For centuries, thematic development and connective repetition have been the chief means by which composers express and listeners follow emotional direction and movement in music. So, since thematic development is impossible in atonal music (music without a major or minor key harmonic basis), and since Webern also disallowed repetition in his Six Pieces for Orchestra, how was he to achieve coherence and direction, and what should audiences listen for?

Because the usual sort of development was impossible and because he was essentially a Romantic, he chose to express moods and movement through sequences of wonderfully colored chamber-music-like musical vignettes, using a larger selection of orchestral instruments in small isolated groups, moving his music and consequently his listeners in progressive stages of increased intensity towards a climax in the fourth piece and then towards a relaxed, quiet ending in the sixth.

Although Webern’s works are unlikely (anytime soon anyway) to appear on WQXR’s annual 100 Audience Favorites List, his approach has influenced a number of other more mainstream composers, Stravinsky among them; and Maestro Cohler gets high marks for sharing his own understanding and appreciation of Webern’s atonal approach with his Ridgefield audience, skillfully managing and unifying the music’s progressive sequence of colorfully orchestrated musical impressions to underscore the composer’s imaginative structuring and expressive intent.

Respighi’s Trittico Botticelliano is a beautiful musical depiction of three Botticelli paintings – Spring (complete with bird calls and a bucolic dance melody), The Adoration of the Magi (a Siciliana with echoes of Gregorian chant), and The Birth of Venus (with a sensuous melodic “Venus” theme and an undercurrent suggestion of the waves from which Venus is seen emerging in the picture.

As in his handling of the Webern pieces, Maestro Cohler was masterful in his direction of balances, phrasing and coloration; and his orchestra followed him at every point. Orchestral playing was fine throughout, with special kudos due to lovely solo and ensemble woodwind playing, especially in The Adoration of the Magi, and excellent overall balance and coloration in The Birth of Venus.

Haydn probably wrote his Cello Concerto No. 1 in the early 1760’s, during the first years of his service at the palace of Prince Esterházy in Austria, but it remained unknown for over 200 years (probably unidentified in the vast collection of some noble family) until it was happily discovered and authenticated in Prague’s National Library in 1961. Now a much-appreciated adornment of standard repertory, it is a beautiful early Classical work, with a jaunty, dance-like first movement, a richly lyrical slow movement, and a lively finale that, with its combination of lively lyricism and agile technical display, is an obvious solo showpiece.

From my personal impression as a listener, the performance was a richly satisfying one except for the rather unusual solo cadenza towards the end of the first movement, which contained long

passages (perhaps featuring the use of harmonics) that were played so softly that they were effectively inaudible to those of us seated toward the rear of the concert hall.

Otherwise cellist Jay Campbell’s impressive amalgam of interpretive sensitivity and technical mastery assured a memorable performance. Haydn, who probably wrote the concerto for a particular cellist in his orchestra at Esterházy Palace, undoubtedly intended it as both a musically expressive and a technically challenging showpiece; and Jay Campbell’s performance would undoubtedly have pleased Haydn on both counts.

Haydn’s early Classical period orchestra was very small (perhaps twelve or so players plus Haydn himself at a harpsichord), and Campbell’s carefully articulated and lyrically gentle handling of the middle movement’s lovely lyricism would have been right on the mark in the early eighteenth-century setting; and Campbell’s technical prowess – the sort of nimble agility that makes even technically challenging music sound easy – would have made Haydn smile.

I’m sure that others in last Saturday evening’s audience would join me in looking forward to more performances in the future by this exceptional young artist.