A Tree Grows in Brooklyn but an Orchestra Flourishes in Manhattan—David Bernard Speaks about His Park Avenue Chamber Symphony
Music Director David Bernard founded New York City’s Park Avenue Chamber Symphony in 1999 and has since built a thriving ensemble that has not only performed in Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts’ Avery Fisher Hall and Alice Tully Hall, and The Riverside Church, but has also toured the People’s Republic of China. Bernard and the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony have released 17 albums on iTunes, Amazon, and ClassicsOnline and have appeared on radio stations WNYC and WQXR and telecast on WCBS. Bernard is an alumnus of the Curtis Institute of Music and the Juilliard School and has recently appeared as a guest conductor with the China Conservatory Orchestra.
Q: You founded the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony in 1999 and have been rather prolific—13 seasons of concerts, 17 albums on iTunes, etc. So how, I wonder, does one go about building an orchestra?
A: Along with recruiting players and growing the size of the ensemble, when building an orchestra I focus on cultivating musicianship and instilling a compelling and distinctive style of music-making in the group. This is a process that can take years to develop. A great way to start is to program repertoire that establishes the fundamentals of classical music performance, selecting works by Mozart and Beethoven. Over time, members assimilate the approach more deeply, require less rehearsal time to the style, and become adept at applying the style to broader repertoire. You know you’ve succeeded when the orchestra comes to the first rehearsal of a program not only knowing their parts, but also knowing how the parts should be played to achieve the distinctive style of the group. It becomes the culture of the orchestra.
Q: From listening to your recordings, I did notice a distinct style in your performances, especially around articulation. For example, many recordings of Strauss’s tone poems lack clarity due to the work’s thick orchestration, but your performances are transparent. Also, the pervasive triplet rhythm in the Saltaerello movement of the Mendelssohn “Italian” Symphony often lacks the sharpness of articulation needed to be effective. Your performance is outstanding in this regard, and it sounds almost second nature to the group. How do you get these results?
A: It all goes back to establishing the culture of musicianship in the orchestra, as I described earlier. For me, the musicians’ biggest responsibility is to speak clearly to their audience; otherwise, the essence of the music is not completely conveyed, and then what is the point? Speaking clearly involves not only articulation, but phrasing, balance, rhythmic discipline, and pacing. And all of this is in addition to technical proficiency and intonation, which is the price of admission for musicians. Developing this style of playing requires a common understanding of “how” to play each phrase—developing awareness of how to fit into the overall texture, applying balance accordingly, clearly conveying the beginnings and endings of phrases to the listener, and pacing the direction and timing of each phrase to be consistent with the demands of the work. It is a rigorous process that instills our distinctive style so that it becomes second nature to each member of the group.
Q: I have to admit that before I auditioned your two recent recordings, I was a bit skeptical that anyone could have anything new that was worthwhile saying about Mendelssohn’s “Italian” Symphony, Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony, and Strauss’s
Tod und Verklärung
, works that have been so exhaustively explored on record. My doubts were erased once I heard the recordings—despite the popularity of the works performed, you offer fresh and inspiring accounts that drew me in. But still, I wonder if it didn’t take a certain kind of daring—call it a leap of faith—to decide to put yourself and the orchestra out there against such formidable competition.
A: The risk of putting yourself “out there” for judgment and comparison to others is an inherent part of being a musician. I am compelled to program and record these works, despite their wide availability, because I believe I have something special to offer through each of them. The Schubert “Unfinished” Symphony is a great example since it is probably the most well known of the works here, is the most played and recorded, and, for many, as a result of this popularity, it has become stale. Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony was the first piece of classical music I ever heard. As a child it is what launched my obsession with classical music, and, as a teen, it is what put me on a path to becoming a musician. This work has been inexorably linked with my life, and I believe that this personal connection is what drives my unique interpretation. So for me, despite its popularity, Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony will never be stale—through every one of its sublime, timeless, and unforgettable phrases, I not only see Schubert’s soul, but my own. While Schubert was only able to complete two movements and evidently intending to complete more, I still do not see this symphony as unfinished. I feel that this work is a complete expression of a musical life—not one more note is needed or wanted. I believe this is the kind of connection a musician must have with the works he/she performs to deliver the best performances.
Q: I note that matters of primary and secondary music education are near and dear to your heart. What are some of the things you are doing with your outreach programs that you believe are having a real impact?
A: I see it as part of my responsibility as a classical musician to “pay it forward.” to ensure that appreciation of classical music continues. Whether this is through teaching, outreach to the schools, or performing to raise funds for organizations that strengthen music education, these efforts are the lifeline that ensures a future for classical music. If you believe in the arts as a cornerstone of society, the mission of an arts organization cannot end with performing concerts and making recordings. Our philosophy is that the connection to classical music develops in early childhood education; kindergarten through third grade is optimal. If you wait until after elementary education to introduce instruments, composers, and ensembles, you lose so many children to easier, more accessible forms of entertainment. The goal of the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony is to help arts education programs thrive in our schools so we can develop well-rounded people who attend concerts and maybe even donate to their local arts organizations. We work very hard to support music education organizations through fund-raising and benefit concerts. Through the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony’s fund-raising efforts, we have helped establish a new scholarship fund for students at the Juilliard School’s Pre-College Division and have raised money for the Lucy Moses Community Music School’s Suzuki Scholarship Program. We have established a particularly longstanding relationship with The Harmony Program—a New York City organization that provides music lessons to economically disadvantaged children and is modeled after Venezuela’s world-famous model of music education, “El Sistema.”
Q: I see that you have conducted in China. What are your thoughts on classical music in China?
A: The Chinese enthusiastically enjoy many aspects of Western culture alongside their own rich culture—especially when it comes to classical music. This manifests itself in two ways.
First, classical music training in China is rigorous and pervasive. China boasts nine major conservatories throughout the country. And these institutions are growing—both in their student population and in their facilities. Many of these schools were founded in the 1950s and closely modeled after conservatories in Russia. I was recently in Beijing at the invitation of the China Conservatory for a week-long residency of chamber music coaching, orchestral readings, and performances with the China Conservatory Orchestra. I could not help but be impressed with the school and its growth. The students are phenomenally talented and responsive, and the faculty and staff extraordinarily hard working. There is a tremendous sense of dedication that pervades everyone there. And from this experience I am confident that China’s commitment to training and development of musical talent is and will continue to be a substantial contribution to Western classical music worldwide. Second, the Chinese population has embraced classical music in everyday life. Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart play in airports and as ring tones on everyone’s cell phones. And a favorite pastime of the Chinese is to celebrate Western New Year’s Eve with light classical concerts fashioned after those given on New Year’s Day by the Vienna Philharmonic. There is so much demand for this that at any given time between Christmas and New Year’s, you can find one of these celebrations offered at major concert halls throughout China. I know this first hand because the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony toured China last year for precisely this celebration.
Q: I imagine that touring China with a full orchestra is a huge but rewarding challenge. What was that like?
A: Yes, an orchestra tour certainly is a huge effort. We were invited to perform a series of holiday concerts in China after a representative of the country attended one of our performances in New York City. Our itinerary of nine cities in 15 days—Beijing, Qingdao, Dalian, Jinzhou, Chaoyang, Shenzhen, Guangzhou, Shenyang, and Xi’an—was a bit of a whirlwind, but it was an extraordinary experience. The concerts were held in the major concert halls in each city, some of which are absolutely spectacular. I would certainly put Beijing Concert Hall, Qingdao Grand Theater, Shenzhen Symphony Hall, Xi’an Concert Hall, and Xinghai Symphony Hall in Guangzhou in the same class as the best American concert halls in terms of acoustics and overall quality. The light classical repertoire included Strauss’s
Die Fledermaus Overture
William Tell Overture
Dance of the Hours
, etc., as well as two Chinese works:
Dance of the Yao Tribe
, which is a gorgeous work by Liu Tieshan and Mao Yuan, and
In Praise of the Red Flag
, by Lü Qiming. Audiences were very enthusiastic, especially when we performed the Chinese works. Something I found interesting is the special affinity the Chinese have for Strauss’s
, which must be played as the last of many encores. The custom is that when the
is performed, the political leaders exit the hall first while the audience claps its hands to the beat of the march—and we had some very enthusiastic clappers.
Q: How do recordings factor into your planning for the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony? What are your future plans for recordings?
A: The Park Avenue Chamber Symphony offers audiences very high quality music-making, eclectic and interesting repertoire, first-rate soloists, and an intimate venue combined into a compelling and reasonably priced package that our audiences love. We are succeeding at building our local audience through this offering, especially through the intimacy of the concert experience. It is not a coincidence that our performance venue, a small church in Manhattan, has fantastic acoustics for recordings. We try to record all of our performances, and in 2008 we began to release these recordings through all the major download and streaming sites. Through these channels we are able to cultivate a worldwide audience alongside our local audiences. I am thrilled that we are able to share our performances with such a broad audience. In terms of future plans, we are about to release our complete Beethoven symphonies cycle. We plan on recording the First and Seventh Symphonies in February 2013, and the Second Symphony in the fall of 2013. We will complete our “trio” of Strauss tone poems in the fall of 2013 with
, and our complete Brahms symphonies by the fall of 2014.
Symphony No. 4,
Symphony No. 8,
David Bernard, cond; Park Avenue Chamber Symphony
PACSNAXOS 0023 (57:44)
Park Avenue Chamber Symphony recordings are available to download at iTunes, Amazon, and ClassicsOnline, and to stream at Naxos Music Library, Spotify, and Rhapsody.
It’s understandable that any new recording of these two hardly underfed stable warhorses, especially by an unfamiliar conductor and orchestra, would be met with a degree of skepticism by the inveterate collector. Is there really space in this overpopulated field for another Mendelssohn “Italian” and Schubert “Unfinished”? And even if there is, can this one compete with the many great performances of these works already available? As to the question of space, that one is easy. This recording will take up no space at all, at least not on the shelves where you store your physical CDs, for as of now, it’s available only as either a download or via streaming. As to the second question of whether these performances are competitive with the best available, you’d better believe it; to dismiss this recording with prejudice is to miss hearing something quite special.
The first thing to note at the very outset of the “Italian” Symphony is the freshness of the approach. The opening bars tumble forth with a sound that’s all spring and sun-drenched slopes in Tuscany’s gentle, rolling hills. It’s a beautiful sound, one that focuses more on the lyrical warmth of Mendelssohn’s writing than on its clarion calls and echoes of trumpets and horns. Which is not to say that the brass don’t shine through in bell-like tone, their presence being made manifest by a recording that’s remarkably vivid and transparent. The first movement exposition repeat is observed.
One of my longstanding favorite versions of this symphony is the one by John Eliot Gardiner leading the Vienna Philharmonic in a performance so full of snap, crackle, and energy that once having heard it I couldn’t imagine it being bettered. And while comparing what is essentially the more modestly dimensioned Park Avenue Chamber Symphony to the formidable Vienna forces, arguably one of the greatest orchestras in the world, would ordinarily be unfair; in this circumstance, I can say that David Bernard and his Park Avenue Chamber Symphony more than hold their own. In fact, though not quite as fast in the whirling saltarello finale as Gardiner, Bernard and his band really impress with how sharply and accurately they articulate that nasty, pervasive triplet figure with a rest in the middle of it. It’s really hard for the string players to stop their bows cleanly for that rest and it’s no tonguing picnic for the winds either. The Park Avenue Chamber Symphony really displays its technical discipline and control in this movement, and at a tempo, 6:04, that’s not all that much off Gardiner’s 5:29 mark.
Oh Schubert! You give us such headaches. Is your Eighth Symphony really your Seventh? And did you really leave it unfinished, as its nickname implies, or did you consider its two movements all that needed to be said? I won’t get into the numbering debate—it’s too exasperating and ultimately pointless—other than to say that with all due respect to the
, hardly anyone is paying attention to your renumbering of the “Unfinished” Symphony as No. 7. It is, and to the rest of the world, shall probably always be No. 8. As to whether Schubert felt the symphony was complete as is, we can offer a definite answer, no. Two pages in full score of an almost completed Scherzo movement in piano score exist, so we know the composer had every intention of writing a formally conventional four-movement symphony. The circumstances under which Schubert abandoned the work are not known but they’re probably no more mysterious than the reasons for which he abandoned all of his other unfinished works, a condition, which, in post-Freudian jargon, would probably be diagnosed as dysfunction brought on by a number of factors, including possible bipolar disorder. In conversational language, we’d probably say the guy had a tough time getting his act together.
The emotional mood swings are there for anyone to hear in the B-Minor Symphony—the dark brooding of the opening strains to the barely contained rage in the first movement’s development section, to the resigned Weltschmerz of the
. Bernard and his Park Avenue Chamber Symphony players manage to communicate the emotional angst and moodiness of the score without resorting to indulgences of portamento, unwritten ritards, or overuse of vibrato. They allow the music to speak for itself and, in so doing, produce a Schubert “Unfinished” that speaks with eloquent solemnity and dignity.
Here, admittedly, are two over-familiar works, but presented in performances that renew our love of them and make meeting them again on this recording a welcome experience. Definitely recommended.