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There are many well-trained string players in the numerous chamber groups performing in our community each concert season, but not many which provide audiences the depth of pleasure offered by the Brussels Chamber Orchestra, eleven men and women whose superb technique and musicality were evident throughout their United States premiere concert in Fletcher Opera Theatre. Their performance was not flawless — I have heard none that was — but everyone in the group displayed the talent, ability and joy in playing that made every piece on the program deserve to be called inspiring musical art.
The first piece of the evening, Carl Nielsen’s Little Suite, Op. 1, revealed the players’ technical skill and expressivity in each of its three movements. The first began with ragged bowing and insecure intonation in the violins, perhaps due to the players’ nervousness in performing a premiere concert. But these excellent professionals recovered quickly after a few measures and won over the friendly audience with beautiful playing throughout the remainder of the work. Especially noteworthy was the powerful, expressive playing in the first movement; the bright allegro of the second movement, with its dancing, forward motion; and the long, sweeping, deliberately slow lines of the first part of the third movement and the greatly contrasting second part, with its classical, almost Mozartian phrasing and harmony, and its brilliant presto tempo. The Brussels Chamber Orchestra revealed that all its players were more than capable of handling all the composer’s demands for shifts in tempo and style.
Samuel Barber’s beloved Adagio for String Orchestra, Op.11, the second piece on the program, received one of the most inspiring, satisfying performances of this work I have ever heard. This performance was deeply affecting because all members of the chamber orchestra completely understood the composer’s intentions: to shape and develop slow, almost painfully long, sighing lines which grow gradually in intensity until they conclude with bittersweet suspensions as the tension dissipates for a moment, only to rise again with even more intensity and power in the following lines. To maintain this passionate expression throughout the work and to hold the audience breathless from beginning to end of the piece must have been one of the most difficult achievements for these players. Only once did they falter, and that at the worst time possible: at the conclusion of the climax, when all the strings were holding the final note, one player lost some control of the bow, producing a ragged sound and falling below the pitch in a very noticeable way. This accident was shattering, but in the context of the incredible beauty which all the players maintained before and after the accident, it was not nearly as damaging as my description makes it seem.
Although it was difficult for players as well as audience members to come back to earth after the Barber, the performance of Edward Elgar’s elegant Serenade for String Orchestra, Op.20, brought everyone back to a quite different world of musical beauty. The chamber orchestra’s clean, fastidious playing of Elgar’s expressive, well-shaped lines was a statement of their great musicality, which allows them to give honest expression to any music they perform. Elgar’s Serenade was a delight from beginning to end. The second movement, with its sharp contrasts in dynamics and long, contemplative lines, was especially powerful; and the third movement, with its quick tempo, lilting phrases and long lines with wide intervals requiring a seamless legato, displayed the players’ superb ability to play effortlessly lines of any length.
After intermission came Tchaikovsky’s well-known Serenade for Strings, Op. 48, which to my mind is heard far too often, so much so that the genuine artistic excellence of the work is not fully appreciated. This issue, however, did not appear to give pause to the members of the Brussels Chamber Orchestra, who approached it with zeal and confidence and the attitude that no one could possibly be dissatisfied with hearing such a beautiful work yet again. After hearing the especially radiant performance of this Serenade, many of us found ourselves in agreement with the players. Indeed, the chamber orchestra’s fresh, exciting performance of Tchaikovsky’s chestnut was some of their best playing of the evening. The majestic introductory material, with its slowly descending scales and grand pause; the ascending scale beginning in the basses and rising through the high strings; the light, dancing middle section; and the return to the majesty of the opening section made us all remember what Tchaikovsky and the Brussels Chamber Orchestra were all about — making impeccably lovely music. The second movement, with its gracious waltz and lilting melody; the third movement, with another lovely waltz, played delicately over an equally delicate pizzicato rhythm; and the finale, with its restatement of the majestic introduction, were the best ways I know to successfully conclude a concert by fine players who offered their great skills and beautiful music to an audience they did not know. The thunderous standing ovation and loud bravos which filled the hall were clear evidence that this audience was completely delighted with the great music the Brussels Chamber Orchestra offered so enthusiastically.