The first time I saw this album title, "Symphonic Dances," I thought immediately of Rachmaninov's Symphonic Dances, but it was not to be. These are ballet suites performed by a symphonic chamber orchestra: Copland's Appalachian Spring, Ravel's Daphnis et Chloe, and Stravinsky's Firebird. Good enough, especially when they're played by Maestro David Bernard and his Park Avenue Chamber Symphony.
As you may remember, the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony, formed in 1999, includes mainly players who do other things for a living (like being hedge-fund managers, philanthropists, CEO's, movie magnates, UN officials, and so on). They're not exactly amateurs, but they're not full-time, paid musicians, either. Fortunately, their playing dispels any doubts about the quality of their work; everyone involved with the orchestra deserves praise. Nor is the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony a particularly small group; it just isn't quite the size of a full symphony orchestra. The main thing is they play very, very well.
First up on their program is the suite from Appalachian Spring by American composer, writer, teacher, and conductor Aaron Copland (1900-1990). He premiered his ballet in 1944, and the following year it won a Pulitzer Prize in Music. The Suite is in eight parts, telling the story of American pioneers of the 1800s celebrating after building a new Pennsylvania farmhouse. Among the central characters are a bride, a groom, a pioneer woman, a preacher, and his congregation.
As always, the Park Avenue players are well up the task, performing like the best purely professional orchestras. They always seem to demonstrate a stylish precision. Moreover, Maestro Bernard leads with a deft hand. He's sensitive when necessary, as in the beginning of the Copland piece and in interludes throughout, and he knows how to handle the biggest climaxes and most energetic themes. When "Simple Gifts" arrives, we expect it to be something special, and it is. Bernard and his team avoid sentimentality and play it with joy and love.
Bernard ensures that Ravel's score exudes the proper fairy-tale magic and mysticism it deserves. The textures are always lush and luminous, the story unfolding at a steady but not insistent pace. When the excitement develops, it, too, is properly judged--not too indulgent, not too overdone, yet with conviction and sprightly animation.
The final item on the program is The Firebird Suite by the Russian-born composer, pianist, and conductor Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971). The Firebird was the first (1910) of three acclaimed ballets Stravinsky produced in an astonishingly short time, with Petrushka (1911) and The Rite of Spring (1913) following closely He based The Firebird on various Russian folk tales he'd read concerning a magical bird that could either help or harm those who captured him. The story itself is an adventure involving a young prince, a group of lovely young maidens, an inevitable love interest, an argument, and the conflict we would expect, with a final resolution courtesy of the bird. It's all very exotic, colorful, warmhearted, and exciting.
Maestro Bernard and the Park Avenue Chamber Orchestra do Stravinsky justice. This is music that, as the booklet observes, should "take the listener by storm." Under Bernard's direction, it does. Yet, again, it isn't a totally bombastic storm. It's a gentle storm when necessary, an alternation of calm and turbulence. It comes out one of the most satisfying Firebird Suites I've heard, and makes me wish Bernard had done (or will do) the complete score.
My only gripe is really a mere quibble: Although Recursive Classics provide plenty of tracks, one for each movement of each work, they don't provide actual track numbers anywhere, nor do they provide timings for each selection. It's a curious oversight.
Audio engineers Joseph Patrych, Antonio Oliart, and Joel Watts recorded the music at DiMenna Center for Classical Music, New York City in January 2017 and Good Shepard-Faith Presbyterian Church, NYC in February 2018. The sound is clear and clean, with a nice ambient bloom. It's also quite dynamic, with strong impact, which further adds to the realism (just listen to that "Danse Infernale"). The tonal balance seems ideal as well, with good bass and treble extension, and there's a fair sense of depth and space to the soundstage. Nothing to complain about here.
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below: