Adventurous programming and bold concert presentation from The Capital Band, at Vogelmorn Hall, Brooklyn

The Capital Band presents:
MENDELSSOHN – String Symphony No. 7 in D Minor
JS BACH – The Art of Fugue (with extracts from the Dhammapada)*
HINDEMITH – Einleitung ( from “Nobilssima Visione”)

The Capital Band
Douglas Harvey (conductor)
*(extracts from the Dhammapada spoken/acted by Bethany Miller)

Vogelmorn Hall,
Vennell St., Brooklyn, Wellington

Saturday, 7th November, 2020

The success of The Capital Band’s first concert (reviewed by Middle C in September of this year – see augured well for this, the ensemble’s second outing at the same venue, particularly in view of the announced programme’s adventurous spirit, incorporating as it did a “spoken word” performance element in some shape or form associated with the music of JS Bach. It all added interest to the expectation of something “out of the ordinary”, and in that respect certainly didn’t disappoint.

First on the programme was a work by Felix Mendelssohn, one of his String Symphonies. a group of works long considered an epitome of youthful genius (they were written between the boy’s twelfth and fourteenth years). The one chosen for tonight’s performance was No. 7, a work in D minor whose tempestuous unison opening immediately suggested young Felix’s familiarity with the music of CPE Bach. The Band pointed the contrasts at the outset between loud and soft, heightening the drama of exchange between the different dynamic levels, and emphasising the interplay between physicality and lyricism. Though intonation was occasionally a bit scrappy, the basic rhythmic pulsing suggested a well-drilled ensemble at work throughout.

The “amorevole’ marking for the second movement’s andante brought out great delicacy and tenderness in the playing at the beginning, which then contrasted with the second subject’s warmth, the two modes of expression then playfully intertwining throughout the movement. By contrast, the players’ attack at the minuet’s start seemed to practically turn the music into a volatile scherzo, the musicians “digging into” the notes as if a kind of elemental spirit had been unleashed.  The “skipping” Trio, an astonishing piece of invention, seemed to come out of the ether, at once disconcerting by its marked contrast to the “Menuetto”, and gripping with its intense build-up to an abruptly dramatic climax – an amazing sequence!

The finale was no less startling, two assertive chords performing a “ready, steady – go!” gesture which led firstly to madcap racings and chasings interspersed by fugal passages which were dovetailed into more “whirling dervish” sequences by turns wild and furious, then delicate and gossamer, finishing with a spirited repetition of the movement’s principal theme – all highly entertaining and involving, and serving notice that Mendelssohn, for all his fame and reputation, remains a somewhat under-appreciated composer.

One couldn’t say exactly the same about JS Bach (whose music Mendelssohn actually helped to “revive” during the 19th Century), although opportunities to hear the great man’s unfinished composition “The Art of Fugue” in any presentation form come rarely for the concert-goer.  The work has been the subject of great controversy amongst scholars regarding its realisation in performance, despite (or perhaps because of) which it has received any number of recordings featuring both solo keyboard instruments and different ensembles. Here, the Capital Band’s string-players took up the challenge, varying the numbers performing each of the pieces as deemed appropriate for the part-writing and in the interests of variety and contrast.

What gave this performance a particular kind of distinction, however, was the use of a speaker interspersing the movements with quotations from the Dhammapadra, a Buddhist collection of over 400 verses containing “steps of religious virtue”, an anthology of moral precepts and maxims as uttered by Gotama Buddha himself to his disciples. Here the speaker was actor Bethany Miller, a vital and vibrant “presence” by dint of her voice and physicality, all of which was certainly engaging, even if she occasionally lapsed into inaudibility in places through movement that was simply too far-flung.  In general, to me it all seemed to be too much in terms of both speech and movement – I thought the considerable inherent power of her presentation would have been enhanced by fewer words and more stillness. What she did was a “tour de force” – but after a while I began to crave for the “more” that “less” would give…….

The music’s austere strength was fully demonstrated in the Contrapunctus 1 movement which immediately followed the speaker’s opening words, sounds which featured the three notes of a D minor chord and a scale, elements which Bach then proceeded, over the next twelve movements, to subject to what seemed like endless variation, by way of inversions, embellishments, and tempo and rhythm changes. Here, in Contrapunctus 1, individual players took up the fugal entries before others in each of the sections joined in, adding their weight to the sound. This deployment of forces took place in a number of the movements, the solo strings beginning the “lines”, and then being joined by their colleagues (as is generally known, Bach didn’t specify any kind of instrumentation in his score, leaving it for the performers to decide how they would present the music).

The Capital Band string-players bent their backs to what was a considerable task, and generally emerged with considerable credit. I particularly enjoyed the solo-string passages throughout the performance, which were delivered in most cases with beauty and precision. To analyse each movement as played would take too much time and space, but some are worth particular mention, such as the generous, richly-played No.5, slow and stately music which built up to a most satisfying fullness, and the No. 6 which followed, the cello beginning a swinging dotted rhythm, answered by the violin, everything nicely dove-tailed to include the flourishes in the solo lines, all beautifully-focused.

Even when difficulties were made manifest – and especially as in the neighbouring vicinity outside the hall some sort of “party” was contributing, not altogether helpfully, a somewhat Charles Ives-ish effect with musical counter-rhythms at odds with what Bach had intended – our splendid performers seemed not even slightly put off their stride. Though playing with considerable spirit, the cellos found the figurations of Contrapunctus 8 something of a trial in places – to their credit they stayed not on the order of their going, throughout – and then the following No. 9 seemed to have a “false start” and needed a re-launch at a slightly modified tempo, which produced a better flow. Against these tribulations one could set the beautiful cello-playing of Contrapunctus 12, the effect almost lullabic in its serenity, and the excitement of the trio-playing  (violin, viola and cello) of No.13a, with the players right on top of their music – thrilling stuff!

There was stillness again for 13b, the speaker’s voice here more effective, making the words more evenly-focused, and the playing (a “contrary motion” version of the theme) allowing the ear to take in the lighter textures more readily and tease out the lines, to near-enchanting effect. And it all came together for the final Contrapunctus 10, with the speaker’s voice again “contained”, perhaps lacking the nth degree of focus at this stage, but with the effect for me indescribably moving, and the music in response reverential at the outset, but quickening in intensity towards the theme’s grand announcement, the playing finding variants of nuance and impulse, the contrast between smaller numbers and the full tutti most satisfying to experience at the journey’s end.

Some consider Paul Hindemith’s music “heavy going”, but I’ve found the key to listening to his music is identifying a particular “sound”, one that’s distinctively “central European” and definitely responsive to repetition, which puts flesh on the slightly dry-boned aspect that his work presents. This work, “Einleitung” (introduction) is actually the opening part of a Suite “Noblissima Visione” drawn from a ballet of the same name completed by Hindemith in 1938 and featuring episodes in the life of St. Francis of Assisi. The composer had been overwhelmed by an encounter with the great Giotto frescoes in a church in Florence, depicting scenes from the saint’s life. Hindemith intended the suite to present the most effective concert-hall music from the ballet, rather than follow any kind of dramatic order.

Right from the beginning of the piece there was captured that distinctive “warm-but-cool” sound characteristic of the composer, the great paragraphs of lyricism securely launched and growing in intensity, the sounds pushing the needle towards the red in places as part of the experience, but easing gently back to each starting-point as the sequences rounded their utterances off, the violas especially distinctive at the music’s end. It made a resonant adjunct to the evening’s journeyings, rounding off in almost ritualistic fashion the sterling efforts of the performers in bringing to life an absorbingly “out-of-the- ordinary” programme!