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Sparkling Conversations

by B.A. Nilsson on March 24, 2010

Albany Symphony Orchestra with Duo Parnas
Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, Feb. 26

Future superstars: Duo Parnas.

Although the violin-cello duo of Madalyn and Cicely Parnas have local roots, they’re destined for an international career that could make this area but a memory. Neither is 20; both have impressive virtuoso chops that they’ve already wielded to great acclaim as soloists and in chamber music performances.

While they’re probably destined to travel an endless road of Brahms’ double concertos, last weekend’s Albany Symphony concerts gave them a reprieve in the form of two shorter, contrasting works.

Saint-Saëns’s The Muse and the Poet was a late-in-life piece that began as a piano trio. Unlike his more showy works like the Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso, this goes in less for virtuosic display. As the composer himself put it, it’s supposed to be “a conversation between the two instruments instead of a debate between two virtuosos.”

Like much of the composer’s work, it’s a charming, instantly forgettable piece that wanders from romantic effulgence into more sparkling up-tempo turns. Saint-Saëns knew his way around the orchestral palette, effectively summoning the solo violin’s first entrance with a harp passage and then wrapping a nice curtain of winds around the soloists’ serenades. If there’s any suspense in the music, it’s wondering if the cello and violin will ever get together—and of course they do, in time, working into a feisty finale for the 15-minute piece. With technique to spare, the effectiveness of the performance was enhanced by the sisters’ keen sense of communication with one another.

Conversation of a different sort informed the performance of Vivaldi’s Concerto in B-flat Major for Violin, Cello and Orchestra. One of hundreds of that composer’s concertos for single soloists and various combos, it got a big boost from a 1963 Heifetz-Piatigorsky recording and is as melodic and cheerful as anything Vivaldi wrote.

Here the soloists are in almost constant dialogue, with one often echoing the other in a manner requiring rhythmic precision from all players. Although the two-part writing is somewhat formulaic, or at least over-familiar, thanks to the unfortunate easy-listening status of most Baroque music, it was propelled by an easy flow of little moments of tension.

David Alan Miller conducted the Albany Symphony with a sure sense of the needs of this piece, keeping the momentum going while remaining in perfect sync with the soloists. Their only problem sounded at the beginning of the third movement, when the brisk tempo got the better of the two for the briefest of moments. True to professional form, it was instantly behind them and forgotten.

For all of the lyricism in the Saint-Saëns piece, I’ll take the three-minute andante in the Vivaldi, which put the Parnas sisters in a trio sonata setting with continuo by harpsichordist Greg Hayes and cellist Susan Libby. Their playing was simple, transparent, and very moving.

The concert also was a virtuoso piece of programming, preceding the conversation of Saint-Saëns with one of music’s more notorious conversations: Transfigured Night by Arnold Schoenberg. Represented as an adventurous choice, it’s no more adventurous than playing a Mahler symphony, and it’s less than half the length.

Telling the story of a couple on a nighttime stroll during which the woman reveals that she’s pregnant by another man, it begins with agitated melancholy in the low strings, sounding motifs that will return, not surprisingly, transfigured towards the end.

Originally scored for string sextet, the orchestra performed the composer’s own arrangement for a larger ensemble of strings—in this case, 21 fine players who respond to Miller with precision entrances and an arresting array of dynamic contrasts.

Effects like the muted arpeggios and pizzicato that accompanied Jill Levy’s excellent solo work were outstanding, and even the seating of the group, with the second violins stage left, added to the remarkable experience. And Schoenberg-haters should know that the work has one of the most gorgeous finales I know, with the composer unabashedly visiting Schubertland to bring in a happy ending.

I’m not solipsistic enough to think that Miller had me in mind when he set the dramatic arc of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 8, which concluded the concert. It was an excellent choice to follow the Vivaldi, being one of Beethoven’s most relentlessly sunny works—there’s not even a slow movement! But there’s no question that when a performance of it bangs out of the gate with the speed and intensity of Arturo Toscanini’s version, I’m happy.

Never mind any crap about critics being loftily objective. I grew up listening to Toscanini conducting Beethoven, and those interpretations are burned into my brain as the standards.

If you know Beethoven, the opening theme is a transfigurative gesture: the first six notes also begin the composer’s Violin Sonata No. 7, but in a minor key. Here it’s all sunshine and vigor and those little pranks of unexpected moments that Beethoven pulled so well—like the finish of the first-movement development section, that sounds like a train chugging uphill, slipping, and then finding its flat-track footing once again.

Horns and winds, who sat out much of the concert, got more than their share here and acquitted themselves nicely. And Jeremy Levine had a field day with the timpani, especially in the explosive finale.

Despite the night’s foul weather, the Troy Music Hall held a sizeable crowd, all of whom seemed as pleased as I was.