Above: Thomas Crawford leading the American Classical Orchestra; image from William Neumann Photography
Thursday September 22nd, 2016 - The opportunity to hear two favorite works on a single evening drew me to this concert by the American Classical Orchestra at Alice Tully Hall: Mendelssohn's "Scotch" Symphony, which every ballet-lover knows by heart, and the marvelous song cycle Les Nuits d’été of Hector Berlioz. The pleasure of hearing a 'new' voice in the Berlioz, and a natural curiosity about the evening's third work - Cipriani Potter's tenth symphony - made the program sound very inviting.
Thomas Crawford, the ACO's founder and artistic director, greeted us with charming and genuinely humorous remarks: the orchestra's celebrating their 32nd season. There are some very fine musicians in the ensemble, among them Myron Lutzke, who did some especially lovely playing in the solo passages for cello.
I must confess that I am not really a 'period instruments' person, and that one or two concerts per season in that genre are more than sufficient for me. The flip side of the coin is that so much of the repertory is really appealing; however, I invariably find myself put off by what so frequently sounds to me like out-of-tune playing that my enjoyment is compromised. Tonight this problem was not as annoying as is sometimes the case, though there were some jarring moments along the way.
The mystery of Cipriani Potter was cleared up tonight. An Englishman who lived a long life (1792-1871), Potter spent 16 months in Vienna (1817-1818) where he met Beethoven. Back in London, Potter enjoyed a notable career as a pianist, giving the British premieres of three of the Beethoven concertos. He composed ten symphonies, nine of which survive. Tonight we heard the tenth, which may actually have been the sixth one to be written.
Cipriani Potter's 10th symphony is perfectly pleasant but - in the end - not very distinctive music. Attractively played by the ACO tonight under Maestro Crawford's baton, the symphony provided no revelations and simply flowed along on its well-crafted trajectory. Overall, it put me in mind of such 'pleasant' works as the Beethoven 'Pastoral', which I try to avoid. Tonight's performance was not helped by a late seating after the first movement, which broke my concentration.
The slender and very attractive young mezzo-soprano Avery Amereau then appeared for the Berlioz. In his opening remarks, Maestro Crawford had spoken of his impression that this singer should be considered a contralto rather than a mezzo; how right he is! It's a distinctive voice with a warm and very cordial lower range, and her singing of the Berlioz clearly impressed her existing admirers and won her many new ones.
It took a moment or two for things to settle in: the opening 'Villanelle' found the singer's her upper notes not entirely steady; this, combined with some vague tuning among the players, made me wonder if I was going to derive full pleasure from these beloved songs tonight. But a few measures into the gorgeous 'Spectre de la Rose', everything came together for the singer and her voice positively blossomed, covering the wide range with confident beauty of tone and expression. I was a bit surprised when Ms. Amereau didn't sink down to the lowest note of 'Sur les lagunes' (to which Regine Crespin so deliciously descends in her magical recording of the work) but that's a minor detail in the face of all that we could savour in Ms. Amereau's genuinely fascinating performance. I look forward to hearing her again.
At this point in the evening, I was ready to strangle the two girls sitting in front of us who could not sit still to save their souls, whispering and texting and flipping their hair; one of them had smuggled in a can of soda or beer. They seemed to be fans or friends of Ms. Amereau, and tried to film or photograph her performance. Adding to their distractions was the expected constant flipping of Playbill pages as people tried to figure out which song of the Berlioz was being sung at the moment; naturally, a few Playbills slipped and hit the floor, seemingly always at the worst possible moments.
These disruptions made me seriously consider leaving at the interval, but my friend Dmitry wanted to hear the Mendelssohn (so did I!), so we stayed on, and it turned out to be the highlight of the evening. The "Scotch" Symphony, so melodically rich and so atmospheric, was inspired by the composer's 1829 visit to Holyrood Castle, where Mary Stuart was crowned Queen of Scots in 1542. Stories of the adventurous, romantic, and ultimately tragic Queen have inspired musicians, poets, playwrights, and painters over the centuries, and Mendelssohn's symphony has to be one of the very best of these numerous homages.
Tonight's performance was lovingly played, wonderfully satisfying, and almost compensated up for the distractions of the evening, even though the texting lass in front of us clearly had other things on her mind.