Symphonic Dances (CD review)

Music of Copland, Ravel, and Stravinsky. David Bernard, Park Avenue Chamber Symphony. Recursive Classics RC2061415.

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.

David Bernard
Second up is the Suite No. 2 from Daphnis et Chloe, premiered in 1912 by French composer, pianist, and conductor Maurice Ravel (1875-1937). Ravel described it as a "symphonie chorégraphique" (a choreographic symphony). He based the music on Greek myth, although one really doesn't have to follow the story line to appreciate Ravel's profusely impressionist music.

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.

JJP

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below:


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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on the Big Jon and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simpleminded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa