Last week’s University Philharmonia Orchestra concert at Hill Auditorium was an impressive display of orchestral might on two rather mature and nuanced works: Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 8” and Strauss’s “Der Rosenkavalier Suite.” Both pieces depict humor, one of the most difficult aspects of orchestral performance. While neither piece was quite as humorous as one would expect, both were impactful displays by student musicians as they learn to play comedic music. This brought both pieces to moments of pure beauty along with occasional moments of confusion.
Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 8” opened quite strong and continued in a triumphant, if slightly unbalanced, vein. The sudden changes in volume, for example, were navigated well. The cellos, in particular, performed their melody to great effect.
The second movement, the comical movement that some have likened to the beating of a metronome, was pleasant and well-executed. The repeating notes in the brass and woodwinds were impeccable, though slightly overpowering. The famed 16th-note passage in the basses (a quick scale-like passage on the lowest portion of the instrument where pitch is virtually indistinguishable) leapt from the orchestra with a muddy ferocity unparalleled in the entire work. It was, as Beethoven intended, a startling departure from the airy texture of the movement, a surprising hint at the frightening textures contained in some of Beethoven’s other orchestral works.
In the third movement, the orchestra struggled a bit to stay together before finding sure footing. The triplets in the cellos at the beginning of the movement began to fall apart, though this was quickly forgotten as the movement progressed. The fluxuations between loud and quiet sound easily captured the audience’s attention throughout the remainder of the work.
The last movement displayed similar faults and strengths in interpretation. While it was the least precise of the movements, it was also the most captivating. The various repeats of the melody within the movement managed to feel new and engaging at every instance. The sudden C-sharp modulation in the coda (ending section) was handled with the appropriate amount of surprise and then acceptance. All in all, it was a fitting end to Beethoven’s “Little Symphony in F” — his strangely sophisticated comedic little work.
Strauss’s “Der Rosenkavalier Suite,” the second work on the program, also contained a few awkward moments in an otherwise eclectic and fun performance. The huge orchestra required for this piece led to some minor balance issues between strings and brass, though this was ironed out by the end of the piece. The cross-sectional doublings (those not confined to instruments within the woodwind, string or brass families) also struggled a bit throughout the work, though they seemed to gain in confidence as the performance progressed.
The octave passages in the bass and low brass, however, captured the audience and set the tone for the rest of the piece. These octave passages were resonant and powerful, seemingly waking up the orchestra and provoking an impressive performance.
Following these octaves, the solo passages began to emerge with confidence from the work. The oboe solos, for example, were impressive. The solo passage for the concertmaster, principal first violin, principal cello and oboe were absolutely awe-inspiring. This moment easily captured the performance, the trading of notes between the instruments beautifully navigated with grace and ease. This created a beautifully light and fragile texture in an otherwise overwhelmingly large work; a brief respite between vast complex sonorities.
The waltz sections in the second half of the work represented the entire orchestra at their best. The balance during these waltz sections was breathtaking — even the harp could be clearly heard when it was appropriate. The slower melodic passages also sounded incredibly rich and poignant. The constant fluctuation between slow melodic content and waltz sections gave the ending a confidence and radiance not felt through the early portion of the work.
The best moment, however, came midway through the end of the work. In preparation for an unexpectedly low bass note, conductor Oriol Sans pointed straight down while facing towards the section, a powerful look on his face. The basses responded to this gesture, delivering an appropriately ferocious drop in register. The smiles on the musicians’ faces as they played this low note represented the feeling of the entire concert: a confident interpretation of two lighter pieces in the orchestral repertoire. While it may be easy to take issue with some minor interpretational inconsistencies in the performance, it is impossible to deny that the orchestra delivered an intense, captivating concert.