Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Orchestra of St Luke's - Beethoven & Ravel - 07/15/12

Conductor: Pablo Heras-Casado
Beethoven: Symphony No 7 in A Major, Op. 92
Ravel: Le tombeau de Couperin
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No 3 in C Minor, Op. 37 - Emanuel Ax

Although my growing experience of outdoors performances has been a decidedly mixed bag (beautiful settings, attractive programs, committed musicians, non-committed audiences), I figured that the Caramoor International Music Festival had to be different, if only for the good reason that when people fork out some cold hard cash, they tend to pay more attention. So when my friend Paula asked me if I’d be interested in joining her for a concert featuring the consistently fabulous Orchestra of St Luke’s with the no less consistently fabulous Emanuel Ax for a program including Beethoven and Ravel, I was ready to pack a picnic and head off to bucolic Katonah before we even got the tickets.
After days of anxiously monitoring the weather forecast and planning the picnic menu and what to do if the picnic was likely to be rained out, we decided to be optimistic and headed to Westchester County with food, wine, water… and no real plan B, except for her car. The muggy weather managed to hold up for our little feast and the first raindrops started falling right at 4:00 pm, just as they were opening the Venetian Theater. This was, however, just the prelude to a massive, unstoppable thunderstorm that kept on relentlessly pounding on the area for over an hour, delaying the start of the performance by 30 minutes and forcing the organizers to shuffle the program, wisely deciding to start off with Beethoven’s high-powered Symphony No 7 instead of Ravel’s understated piece.

The competition between the raging storm outside and the turbulent first movement inside was a tight one and the winner is still unclear. The rain pounding on the tent often made it challenging to hear the music, but since the dynamic rhythms and abrupt modulations did not go unnoticed, we’ll call it a tie. Lo and behold, it is the quieter second movement that inconspicuously put its hypnotic spell on Mother Nature and eventually subdued her wrath. After the first few minutes of the stunning Allegretto, incidentally one of my favorite symphonic movements ever, the rain tapered off, then stopped and some shy sun rays delicately beamed in our much battered shelter. T’was about time! As if to celebrate Beethoven’s ultimate triumph over the elements, the rest of the work was played with much energetic joyfulness, all the way to its breakneck speed conclusion.
After intermission, it was back to what was our original opening number, Le tombeau de Couperin by Ravel. After Beethoven’s endless inventiveness, the young but poised maestro Pablo Heras-Casado and the orchestra made sure that Ravel’s engaging and subtle melodies got all the attention they deserved.
And finally came the unassuming-looking middle-aged man with the magic fingers we had all been waiting for, Emanuel Ax. Barely containing his eagerness to play, he was obviously having a ball confidently emphasizing the assertiveness of the muscular passages while quietly illuminating the delicacy of the lyrical moments of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No 3. Just like our Sunday in the country, his memorable performance was peaceful and stormy, with just the right amount of emotional intensity, and the unwelcome touch of what is apparently Westchester County’s hottest fashion accessory these days: metal bangles. While it is understandable that the local ladies took advantage of such a high profile event to doll themselves up, it would have been nice if they hadn’t insisted on sporadically adding their own contribution to the music with their noisy baubles. So much for calm after the storm.

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