Thursday 7 February 2013

The Eroica Project Orchestra: Beethoven in The Hague

A friend said, when I told her I was off to a concert:  imagine how all the prayer going on in that church right in the heart of the city infuses the area with spirituality. These were profound thoughts and I sat in the magnificent Kloosterkerk church expectant for a deep revelation of Beethoven´s first and second symphonies as The Eroica Project prepared to perform.
The first disadvantage of performing in the magnificent Kloosterkerk was apparent before the music even started: just as the conductor was about to raise his baton, not one but several of The Hague´s trams rumbled past the building, and the conductor and players all had to wait. It turned out to be a sign that this venue and this music were not to be a marriage made in heaven.
Once the music started, the generous resonance meant that it was very difficult to hear any kind of detail and much of the following 50 minutes passed over in an acoustic blur.
This was a pity, because  The Eroica Project orchestra is made up of an excellent band of players using period instruments and the quality of their playing deserves to be heard and enjoyed.
The programme note tells us that the group have returned to original sources for the scores, and this has led the conductor to follow “extreme dynamics and radical tempi”. The sources are not identified so we are left wondering exactly what the conductor has looked at that other conductors have not already taken into account in their performances of these works.  I did not perceive much of extreme dynamics, certainly not in the piano/pianissimo range, but the tempi did influence the performance. It seemed to me that the faster movements  were energetic and pushed the orchestra to the edge in the challenge of ensemble playing.  Given the resonance I mentioned before, unfortunately the gain in energy and a frisson of risk was not enough to offset the loss of detail.
The second movements are marked Andante cantabile con moto and Larghetto and in this performance there was plenty of moto in both. I do not know what indications in original sources have encouraged the conductor to use faster tempi for these movements but the result diminished my enjoyment of the music. On the one hand, the music in each of these movements needs to breathe and there simply was not time enough to let the melodies sing as one phrase hurried on to the next. On the other hand, the contrast between these two movements and the other movements was absent, so we lost a sense of large scale structure in each symphony. There was a sameness about all the movements which I am sure no version of Beethoven´s scores, Urtext or revised, ever meant to convey.
The programme note explains that the orchestra is made up of current or recent students at the Royal Conservatoire of The Hague and that the conductor teaches there.  I wish this concert had taken place in the conservatoire´s concert hall just a few streets away from the Kloosterkerk so that we could have enjoyed the excellent playing with all the detail which these fine musicians are capable of.
What was added to our understanding and enjoyment of this music by the use of historically appropriate instruments?  In this acoustic the gains were uncertain. Maybe we need to match the effort made to re/construct the instruments with the effort made to find the performing venues for which they were intended.
I hope I was not the only one inspired by the spirituality of the Kloosterkerk to offer up a prayer for the orchestra for their performance the following night. If the acoustic in this church is difficult, the sound in the following day´s venue, a historic sailors´ church in nearby Scheveningen, is an acoustic black hole by comparison.
The Erocia Project has been founded recently by the conductor Isaac Alonso de Molina. There is a beautifully designed web site which will undoubtedly build up its content as this excellent group continues to explore Classical and Romantic repertoire.

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