Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

February 16, 2021

REVIEW: Albany Symphony, Romantic Brahms

Albany Symphony, Albany, NY
February 13 – March 13, 2021
by Michael J. Moran

Like other orchestras in the local region, the Albany Symphony has reinvented itself during a season in which the Covid pandemic has ruled out business as usual. They are livestreaming monthly concerts by smaller ensembles of their members, with guest musicians, and recording them for 30-day availability on demand. Livestream broadcasts include access to pre-concert discussions and post-concert Q&A sessions.

Their latest concert, led by the orchestra’s longtime Music Director David Alan Miller and performed at Universal Preservation Hall in Saratoga Springs, NY, featured music by William Walton, Tyson Davis, and Johannes Brahms, all written when they were in their early twenties. It opened with 16 selections from Walton’s “Façade,” delightful 1920s settings of nonsense poems by Edith Sitwell, brilliantly declaimed by soprano/narrator Lucy Fitz Gibbon. A sextet of woodwinds, brass, cello, and percussion sounded alternately sinuous, jazzy, and hilarious (quoting Rossini in the “Jodelling Song”) under Miller’s fanciful direction.

Next came the world premiere of Davis’s “Distances,” commissioned for this event. A 20-year-
old Juilliard student, the already multiple award-winning composer cites modernist Elliott Carter as an influence on the “intense chromaticism and ambiguous harmony” of his work. Reflecting “physical and emotional” separation during the Covid pandemic, a colorful ensemble of twelve players, from bassoon to marimba, punctuates soft, brooding passages in “Distances” with eruptions of questing tension. The Albany musicians played this affecting piece from a promising new voice with conviction and finesse.

The concert closed with a novel take on a relatively unfamiliar work. Miller presented an early four-movement version for nine instruments by the 25-year-old Brahms of what would become his six-movement first orchestral serenade as a template for a first symphony. The ensemble of four woodwinds, horn, and four strings was winningly transparent, and Miller’s urgent leadership of a crisp opening Allegro, a flowing and graceful Adagio, a light and delicate Minuet I and II, and a brisk closing Rondo made a strong case for the work’s symphonic ambition.

The musicians were well spaced across the ample stage, and the conductor and string players wore masks. Sound quality was clear and full, while the videography was imaginatively varied. Insightful comments from Miller, Davis, and Fitz Gibbon added much value to the discussion and Q&A.