Impressive Music-Making Outside the Top-Orchestra Circuit

United StatesUnited States Grieg, Schumann, Mendelssohn and Beethoven: James Rester, Kenneth Bell, John DeVivo, and Albert Houde (horns), Reading Symphony Orchestra, members of the Reading Symphony Youth Orchestra*, Andrew Constantine (conductor), Santander Performing Arts Center, Reading, Pennsylvania. 2.4.2016 (BJ)

Grieg: From Holberg’s Time, Suite for String Orchestra, Op.40
Schumann: Konzertstück in F major for Four Horns and Orchestra, Op. 86
Mendelssohn: Overture, The Hebrides (Fingal’s Cave), Op. 12*
Beethoven: Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67

Aside from—please note, I do not say “below,” but “aside”—the level of the big nationally and internationally known ensembles, there is an abundance of relatively small cities around the United States that support local orchestras of their own. Among them, I doubt whether there can be many that derive more pleasure from the circumstance than Reading, Pennsylvania, and Fort Wayne, Indiana.

It is in those two cities that an exceptionally talented British conductor, 54-year-old Andrew Constantine, is in charge of orchestral life, as music director of the Reading Symphony since 2007 and the Fort Wayne Philharmonic since 2009. I have not heard him at work with the latter orchestra, but I was happy to catch up with him when, recently returned from a guest engagement with the St. Petersburg Philharmonic in Russia, he took on this challenging program with his Reading ensemble.

It was clear at once that Constantine has raised the standard of what was already a respectable orchestra, when I heard it about ten years ago, to a level that deserves a much more enthusiastic evaluation than that. The strings were smoothly eloquent in Grieg’s Holberg Suite. Schumann’s exhilarating Konzertstück is a tough nut for any orchestra—as well as for four horn soloists—to crack, but here too the performance, now also involving woodwinds, brass, and timpani, was at once confident and highly proficient. The four horn-players—two of them regular members of the orchestra—covered themselves with glory.

After intermission, as apparently happens on a regular basis, the orchestra was joined in a “side-by-side” performance of Mendelssohn’s Hebrides overture by members of the organization’s associated youth orchestra. These latter rose splendidly to the occasion, and must have profited from the evidently warm-hearted mentoring they were receiving from concertmaster Christopher Collins Lee and his colleagues.

Through all this, it was a pleasure to watch Constantine’s exceptionally graceful and (so far as might be judged by a mere audience member) communicative baton technique. The interpretative uses to which he put it, moreover, were always well judged in respect to tempo, phrasing, clarifying of ensemble, and emotional expression.

Then came the evening’s major work, which is what Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony must surely be in practically any program it appears on. I confess to finding one or two details in Constantine’s interpretation that seemed not totally in accord with the score. In particular, the relationship that Beethoven’s notation demands between the two fermatas (or measured pauses) in the first movement’s main theme whenever it appears—the second longer than the first—was neither firmly established nor consistently maintained.

Nevertheless, this was an unfailingly sensitive and often thrilling account of one of the Austro-German symphonic tradition’s central masterpieces. And though I thought that, again, the difference of tempo between the scherzo and the finale (which has a slightly slower metronome marking) was not made completely clear, conductor and orchestra still succeeded in making the transition from the one to the other a genuinely cathartic and heart-easing event at each of its recurrences. There was authentic grandeur about the performance, and authentically Beethovenian heroism.

A notable talent, then, and one that I look forward to encountering again both with Andrew Constantine’s own orchestra and, I hope, in guest appearances with more obviously prestigious ensembles.

Bernard Jacobson

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