Friday, November 15, 2013

The night the applause wouldn't stop

Conductor Grant Llewellyn in action. Photo: Michael Lutch
It's a nice problem to have, applause that won't stop. Some might not call it a problem at all.  But whatever it was, it started early at the Handel and Haydn concert two weeks ago - right after the first movement of Mozart's Haffner Symphony (No. 35 in D Major), which was so splendid that people broke out into spontaneous clapping and stomping immediately. The Society's debonair guest conductor, Grant Llewellyn (above) didn't take offense, of course (even though applauding after a movement is frowned upon among the cognoscenti - which includes me, in case you can't tell). Instead, Llewellyn turned to the crowd with a smile, and seemed to beg for more.

They were happy to give it. Indeed - having been given permission - they applauded for every single movement of every single piece after that, for the rest of the performance. But then it was that kind of concert - all quite splendid, really.  Llewellyn, who preceded Harry Christophers in the role of H&H's Artistic Director, clearly hasn't lost his touch with an orchestra - nor any of his charisma at the podium.  And the orchestra responded to him with a warmth and vigor that I don't think I've heard from it in a while.  As reunions go, this was a sweet one.

The program itself was likewise delicious - after the Haffner came late Haydn, his Sinfonia Concertante in B-Flat Major, and then early Beethoven, Symphony No. 2 in D Major.  You could argue that none of these are in the top tier of their respective composers' achievements - but who's arguing? Not me.  The Haffner was particularly wonderful - the first movement was imbued with a forceful momentum that was somehow romantic (you could tell the work started life as a serenade), while the following Andante, in contrast, was a softly surging lullaby. I wasn't quite as taken with the clomp of the famously clumsy minuet, but the Presto brought everything to a rousing finish.  I suppose Llewellyn said nothing truly new about the Haffner in this performance; his perspective is essentially that of the nineteenth-century consensus. But what he did say he said so very well that it was hard to care - indeed, he's a master of symphonic rhetoric, if you ask me, with an especially precise ear for the musical dialogue between sections of the orchestra.

The Haydn wasn't quite as smashing, I have to admit, although it too was mostly transporting.  The piece - a kind of mash-up of the symphony and concerto (for four instruments, no less - the violin, cello, bassoon, and oboe) - is a showcase for the famous wit of this musical raconteur, who teases and confounds audience expectations throughout.  But at times Haydn also pushes his melody up into the very highest pitches of his instruments - where cellist Guy Fishman struggled to hold onto his tone.  Concertmaster Aisslinn Nosky was in fine form, however, on violin (as she always is), and there was superbly bubbling work from Andrew Schwartz on bassoon, as well as a sweetly voiced lyricism from Stephen Hammer on oboe. Framing this quartet, the rest of the orchestra gave a stately, eloquent performance.  No wonder every one kept clapping.

But the best was yet to come - the Beethoven.  The great Ludwig van's Second Symphony, though it counts as somewhat obscure, actually heralds much of his later symphonic development; portents of the Third, Sixth, and (I'd argue) even the Seventh echo in its passages.  Llewellyn clearly knows it well, and his reading was superb; somehow he seemed to keep the idea of symphonic potential in the air, as if the composer were discussing with himself the musical trajectory he might eventually take. That internal dialogue slowly built in momentum, until it approached a frenzy toward the finish, which read as a kind of gauntlet thrown down by the composer to himself. Or perhaps us, I'm not sure. But certainly Llewellyn had the entire orchestra - and of course the crowd - with him all the way to the end.  When they finally stopped clapping, now that there were no more movements to applaud.


  1. Well, applauding between movements USED to be frowned upon by the cognoscenti. Now, as you presumably know, there is a debate between those who still disapprove, and those who argue that applause between movements was expected in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, that composers wrote individual movements with the intention of bringing the house down and that failing to respond to the music accordingly diminishes the intended experience, etc.

    Pauses between movements are a somewhat tantalizing moment for me nowadays; the suspense, waiting to see whether those who know better than to applaud will win out, or the informal alliance of those who don't know any better and those who think they know better still.

    I'm personally in favor of applauding between movements, but am ashamed to say I haven't yet had the courage to start before a good number of other people are doing it.

    We seem to have attended the same performance. You say the cellist struggled in the Haydn; to me it was the bassoonist whose instrument sounded conspicuously uncooperative, though I remember feeling a mix of relief and exhilaration when he at least seemed to bring it to heel in the concluding bars of the finale.

  2. Yes, I felt Fishman got squeaky at the top. I thought Schwartz was fine, although I'll say this much - a subtle tuning issue seemed to develop between the quartet, as can easily happen with period instruments over even a short period of time.