Curtis Chamber Orchestra Combines Pleasure with Instruction

United StatesUnited States Copland, Bernstein, Mahler, and Stravinsky: Bella Hristova (violin), Curtis Chamber Orchestra, Giancarlo Guerrero and Edward Poll (conductors), Perelman Theater, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 5.12.2014 (BJ)

Copland: Appalachian Spring Suite
Bernstein: Serenade
Mahler: Blumine
Stravinsky: Pulcinella Suite


The chamber orchestra of Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music appears annually under the auspices of the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society, and this time around the collaboration resulted in an evening that combined pleasure with a touch of highly interesting artistic illumination.

The performances of Appalachian String and Pulcinella at opposite ends of the program were more than ordinarily cogent and enjoyable. Edward Poll, Curtis’s Rita E. Hauser Conducting Fellow, is clearly a young man with a future. In this richly humane and rhythmically alert performance of the Copland (given in its original scoring for thirteen instruments), he displayed a communicative beat and an excellent ear for orchestral balance. I had almost written, “a young man to watch,” but Poll would do well to remember that a conductor is “on” from the first moment of his appearance on stage. His somewhat schlumpy initial demeanor seemed like a bad omen—that he shed it for an altogether more commanding demeanor as soon as he stepped on the podium quickly corrected that impression, but it would be better if he could avoid giving that negative first impression altogether.

The rest of the program was conducted by Giancarlo Guerrero, music director of the Nashville Symphony and principal guest conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra. His performance of the suite from Stravinsky’s Pulcinella was a masterly blend of instrumental wit with the tenderness that this work allows to poke through the composer’s habitually and deliberately rigid carapace. Equally pleasurable was the performance of the Serenade “After Plato’s Symposium,” one of Bernstein’s most attractive works, which he and the highly skilled orchestra fashioned in collaboration with the talented young Bulgarian-born violinist Bella Hristova. Herself a former pupil of Ida Kavafian at Curtis (and of Jaime Laredo at Indiana University), she played with a most impressive technical assurance, which allowed her to make the most of the many opportunities for lyrical expression afforded by the solo part.

So much for pleasure. But receiving instruction is pleasurable also—and hearing Mahler’s Blumine in the context of this program, separated from the composer’s First Symphony, of which it originally constituted the second movement, provoked some illuminating thoughts. Heard thus outside its symphonic setting, the roughly eight-minute movement came across as a fairly unimpressive piece of salon music, and somewhat sleazy salon music at that. It was hard to imagine how Mahler could have thought it an appropriate element in so massive and heroic a symphony. That use is just about as incongruous as Valse triste would have been if Sibelius had had the curious notion of inserting it as a movement in one of his no less serious and substantial symphonies. (Both pieces, incidentally, originated as parts of the incidental music their composers wrote for plays.)

But—and this is where the thought becomes interesting—incongruity is a quality that precisely fits Mahler’s conception of symphonic style: he famously disputed with Sibelius, opposing his view that “a symphony must contain the world” to Sibelius’s contrary espousal of strict logic in symphonic composition. And so, if you take the thought further, the idea of Blumine in its role as second movement of what Mahler originally called the “Titan” Symphony is perhaps no more unlikely than, say, the thought of including the minuet-ish second movements of his Second and Third Symphonies in those works would seem if you heard them out of the symphonic context.

I am, anyway, grateful to Curtis and to Giancarlo Guerrero, a most accomplished and eloquent maestro, for giving me the opportunity to think these thoughts. And I must add that a further pleasure was seeing that the former Curtis proscription of German-bow technique on the double bass is now a thing of the past. Under an earlier regime at the Institute, the faculty rejected no less a master of the instrument than Gary Karr—as great a bass-player as may be found anywhere in the world, and a practitioner of German bowing—for the master class that Curtis’s then director, John de Lancie, vainly invited him to give.

Now that the Philadelphia Orchestra’s principal double bass, Harold Robinson, is the man in charge of the instrument at Curtis, a wiser policy open to players of both the German-bow and the French-bow persuasions has been adopted. The two methods have their contrasting advantages, French bow tending to favor rhythmic precision, German bow perhaps offering more depth of tone. One of the four basses heard at this concert, Braizahn Jones, was using the underhand grip of the German-bow method–and, as the only bassist playing in the Copland work, he made a thoroughly convincing effect with it.


Bernard Jacobson