The Capital Band in Brooklyn – Pärt, Janáček and Bartók a great workout for the Vogelmorn Hall

The Capital Band presents:
Arvo Pärt – Summa
Leoš Janáček – Suite for Strings
Béla Bartók – Divertimento

The Capital Band
Douglas Harvey (conductor)

Vogelmorn Hall, Vennell St.,
Brooklyn, Wellington

Saturday, 10th April 2021

This was the first of four concerts scheduled by The Capital Band for 2021, a fascinating programme of music which engaged throughout for different reasons – the works played were straightforwardly presented in their “original” forms, or (in the case of Arvo Pärt’s Summa) an alternative form crafted by the composer. The remaining concerts in the 2021 series will each contain a chamber work “rearranged” for The Capital Band’s body of strings – though in a sense Arvo Pärt’s Summa as played here demonstrated something of the same Baroque-like principle of musical transposition, one laying the music’s importance primarily with the notes rather than the types of instruments themselves (Pärt originally wrote Summa for voices, but has since produced versions of the work for various instruments, including one for four recorders!).

Much has been written about the “objectivity” of Pärt’s music, in a way that almost suggests that it might be better “performed” if played by machines, devoid of disruptive “emotion” and enjoying built-in control of things like vibrato, dynamics and tempo. One commentator declared that in Pärt’s music, conventional “expression” has little meaning for performers, and that its effect depends upon “careful self-observation and self-control”. True, the simplicity of the notes can be misleading, as players need to strive to “get close to the sound”, to realise the composer’s declaration that “It is enough to beautifully play this one and only tone – to escape into a self-imposed aestheticism of sound…” – but to an extent the same is true of any “simple” passage in any work requiring a certain “purity”; and performers already undertake to “sound” such passages with whatever is required to make the music produce its required effect. I would hope that, however much any musician strives to realise Pärt’s dictates, the result will still carry a certain individuality because of the variables – otherwise we may as well leave the realisation of such “pure” objectivities to machines to play!

The strings of The Capital Band performed this work without a conductor, an effect which in an unexpected way for me “democratised” the music, a phenomenon heightened by the ritualistic exchanges between the groups which suggested a “coming together” of equals and a spontaneous development of phraseology seemingly practised, as it were, in response to each other – the tapestries “floated” by each of the episodes, dovetailed at their beginnings and ends, built up a kind of layered after-resonance of exchange, the “character” of the different sequences determined by the different-sized instruments variously adding texture and colour to the compendium of sounds, and certainly imparting a contrasting grainy, even gutsy aspect to the proceedings! Though this in theory seemed some way from the kind of intensification the composer might have intended, I relished the musicians’ whole-hearted use of both air and earth in the work’s realisation.

Re the next item on the programme, I knew beforehand who the composer was, of course, but after hearing a recording prior to going to the concert (the Suite for Strings wasn’t a work I’d previously heard), was disconcerted at finding the music so very unlike the Janáček I’d gotten to know and love over the years.  Hoping that a second hearing might elucidate my understanding of the music, I did manage to pick up some “clues” as to the music’s provenance this time round (a touch of wildness in the very opening, a hint of Bartok-like darkness at the beginning of the fifth movement Adagio, and some Dvorak-like plaintiveness in the final movement’s opening), but practically nothing that even suggested the characteristic Janacek astringencies that were to make his mature works so uniquely compelling!

Janacek was 23 when he completed the work, originally giving the movements of his Suite baroque titles, but removing them later. Here, the players, under the direction of conductor Douglas Harvey spiritedly attacked the opening’s agitations, together working their way through some intonation vagaries with high-lying passages towards the ”marching-song” middle section of the work, begun by the lower strings, and building up to a confident and spirited outpouring of energies and lyrical warmth! – a kind of order wrought from chaos, the music briefly revisiting the agitated opening figures, before receding beautifully and tenderly into silence! A sweet, Grieg-like melody began the following Adagio, the ensemble steadily holding the lines throughout as the music seemed to touch its forelock to places in Wagner’s “Lohengrin”, the players admirably maintaining their sweetness of intonation. The jolly, but comfortably sprung Andante con moto provided a cosily folkish contrast to the frenetic Presto that followed, with the dynamic contrasts tellingly caught, the rawness of tone in places not inappropriate to the sense of abandonment – a gentle, sentimental Trio section allowed some respite before the rumbustions returned!

The lower strings began the fifth movement Adagio with splendidly dark purpose not unlike Bartok’s “Concerto for Orchestra” opening, the upper strings joining in, hymn-like, before a solo cello sang a comforting song. Briefly, the lower strings returned the music to the opening, before allowing their lighter-voiced colleagues the last word. A touch of Slavic intensity enlivened the strings’ beginning of the finale, the energies generated bringing the composer’s older colleague Dvorak to mind, nicely alternating strife and plaintiveness up to the work’s sudden switch to the surety of a major key with the final chord.

So we came to the work I for one had come to the concert for – and to my great joy I wasn’t disappointed, as conductor and players launched the opening of the wonderful Bartok Divertimento as full-bloodedly as they meant to go on! It was all done with rather more girth and energy than I actually had been previously used to, in fact, the weight and focus of the playing returning to my ears rich dividends as the movement proceeded, the sinuous violin lines keeping the lilting lines and the “noises off” contrasts to the dance rhythms splendidly alive! I thought the playing caught the music’s rusticity beautifully, the full-blooded textures capturing our involvement as surely as did the contrasting interplay between solo strings and ripieno, in true concerto grosso fashion! And then, the reprise was like a kind of homecoming, the solo violin sounding a tad uncertain, but steadfastedly able to maintain the music’s poise and spirit.

The slow movement had a telling “wandering” aspect at the outset, the lower strings burrowing their way underneath the upper strings’ textures, until the latter sounded a warning with a single laser-beam note! Thereupon all was dark uncertainty, muted tones, creepy rhythms and frightening outbursts, culminating in a truly ghoulish “night-music’ crescendo to an abyss’s edge, the movement’s coda transfixed by some amazingly intense tremolandi set against desperate rapier-like strokes prior to the darkness swallowing everything.

Great and energetic gesturings extricated the music from the void at the finale’s beginning, before setting it on its feet and inviting it to dance! Some terrific playing from the first violin galvanised the band into joyful agreement and like energies, the players diving into busy fugue-like passagework and affirming unisons, the solo violin again shining with some melismatic flourishes, and imitative figures. As the music reinvented its own material the musicians appeared to relished the upward flourishes and the rapid ostinati, the effect totally exhilarating, the ensemble in a ferment! – which made the gradual “winding down” of momentums all the more heart-stopping, and the subsequent “playful pizzicati” irresistibly captivating, only to have the “whirling dervish” ostinati figures return, and bid the movement’s opening dance motif farewell with a flourish! All of this came off in so whole-hearted and full-blooded a fashion, it left no room for any response other than appreciative and enthusiastic applause, to which the band responded with a sweetly-played “return to our lives” rendition for string ensemble of Alexander Borodin’s famous Nocturne movement from his Second String Quartet, one variously featuring some lovely solo work in places from violin and cello, and making for us a soulful, and in places exquisite “homeward-bound’ present.