In yet another collaboration this weekend, the Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia, Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra, and pianist, Ching-Yun Hu came together to present an evening of Beethoven and Gill. The concert began with a rousing performance of Beethoven's "Overture to Fidelio". The Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra delivered with energy and enthusiasm. The evening then took us back in time to Beethoven's Second Symphony which displayed new romantic era qualities on a classical foundation. Listening to this work today we tend to overlook Beethoven's innovations, but according to the program notes, "Audiences didn't quite know what to make of such unusual music".
The evening leaped forward to 2013 after the intermission with Jeremy Gill's "Before the Wresting Tides". Gill provided us with some background into the piece commissioned by the Mendelssohn Club in an article here, several days before the concert. I find that introductions to brand new works are very useful. Perhaps this is because I am often more engaged with classical music when I also associate visuals to go along with what I am hearing. Even if you are not one who seeks visual inspiration, you may find the thought process behind the composition to be fascinating. Gill described how his new work would be paired with Beethoven's Choral Fantasy. Both works included the same instruments, a piano concerto, and chorus.
Jeremy Gill found himself faced with an unexpected challenge for both concerts in the series. Alan Harler, Music director of the Mendelssohn Club, had planned to conduct both the Choral Fantasy and Gill's work, but suddenly fell ill before the first concert. Who better to fill in, but the composer, himself? As they say in theater, "the show must go on", and Gill did a fine job as emergency substitute.
I have to admit a lack of comprehension of poetry. I can barely understand the "high art" poetry often set in contemporary art song when I simply read the text. Add melody to the words, complex musical accompaniment, plus the unfamiliarity of a brand new work, and I'm completely lost in a matter of seconds. So my brain revolts and spends its energy locked onto the instrumental part and largely ignores the rest. The result for me was that my experience listening to Gill's "Before the Wresting Tides" may have been very different from others in the audience. Of course this is one of the beauties of new music, too. Free of opinions, history, and reviews, it is a very personal experience.
The unusual choice of using timpani to represent bells provided a focal point to the beginning of the work. Images of coastal towns and stormy seas flashed through my head. The combination of the full chamber orchestra, large chorus and Hu's strong presence on the piano delivered an immense wall of sound to the audience that made the softer sections even more dramatic. The timpani "bells" tolled again at the end of the piece, but more softly, and in a different musical setting. I had the distinct feeling that we had be transported to another place.
According to the program notes, Beethoven completed the Choral Fantasy in only about two weeks. How did he accomplish this? First, by borrowing themes from other works and second by improvising the opening piano part during the premier and notating it later. This is almost inconceivable today. It was fun to discover bits of music that would find their way into later works such as a variation of "Ode to Joy" that would re-emerge in his ninth symphony.
Even though this concert contained three works from Beethoven, they were quite different from each other, and Gill's work provided a nice contrast. Collaborations like this bring a refreshing mix to the audience and an even better opportunity to fill seats. In fact, ushers were needed to fill in the gaps to what appeared to be a sold out concert. Performances from all the musicians were excellent and many in the audience lingered to talk to them and enjoy a reception.
* Photo: Sonya Tokarchyk
Disclaimer: This article is an observation from the viewpoint of a "regular member" of the audience, not a critical review.