The American Classical Orchestra played Beethoven’s Third Symphony “Eroica” and Coriolan Overture on period instruments at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall on Friday night. I look forward to ACO concerts, and not only for the warm sound of the instruments and the musicians’ great collaborative skill. Conductor Thomas Crawford‘s revealing and amusing explanations and demonstrations of salient aspects of the music are also, for me, a big draw.
Hearing the orchestra play some of the music’s key themes and motifs in isolation is a boon to appreciation, whether you know the music well or have never heard it before. That’s especially so with a titanic piece like Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3, known as the Eroica (“heroic”). Often performed, but not so often on original instruments, and seldom explicated in concert, the symphony gained more meaning for me at this concert than it had in the past.
An understanding of what the composer was doing wouldn’t do much good, though, without a sterling performance. The ACO delivered one, beginning with an appetizer, Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture. That piece eased us into the orchestra’s relatively mellow sound, a sound we don’t often hear in these canonical works when they’re played by modern orchestras with their crisp technical precision (which the ACO shares) and up-to-the-minute equipment (which it pointedly doesn’t, visibly as well as sonically).
It was immediately apparent that Beethoven’s vocabulary of force and tension comes through quite clearly when played by the instruments of his time. In some ways, they even allow the subtleties of the orchestration to shine more clearly. Strings, winds, and brass slide securely into their places, never competing for focus or volume.
Acclimated by the Coriolan, itself in a “heroic” mood, I listened to the ACO’s humanized Eroica with deepened appreciation. Again, Crawford avoided extremes. Rolling the first movement steadily forward, he found the sweet spot for the tempo, keeping it as steady as one could ask for all the way to the righteous conclusion.
Beautiful balance, especially between the strings and woodwinds, made the second movement that rare funeral march you don’t want to end. The bass viols’ pickups and responses under the main theme sang with fatherly power. The tempo ebbed and flowed subtly as Crawford maintained the march’s strange momentum.
The orchestra found all the high spirits in the Scherzo movement’s contrasting rhythms and unexpected accents. The horn fanfares punctuated the music baldly but smoothly. Throughout, each voice came through distinct and assured.
The Finale too was energetically virtuosic, with a finely articulated fugue. The “Eroica” proved a seriously jubilant finish to the ACO’s season. Altogether Crawford and the orchestra showed once again their mastery of the classical repertoire, as well as their ardent feeling for this deathless music.
The orchestra is preparing for its upcoming 35th season, with music of Mozart, Vivaldi, Bach, Schubert, and Mendelssohn, the ACO Chorus, a Christmas concert featuring Scarlatti’s Christmas Cantata, a family program with recorder virtuoso Horacio Franco, and – naturally – more Beethoven, whose 250th birth anniversary arrives in 2020. Visit the ACO website for details and tickets.