Tuesday November 6, 2012

WILLIAMSTOWN -- John Cage would have been disappointed. The only sounds the Williams audience could muster for his 4’33" were some polite coughing, a few creaking chairs and a couple of snickers.

Four minutes and 33 seconds of a symphony orchestra sitting still and playing absolutely nothing felt like a silent meditation during a church service.

The Berkshire Symphony and director Ronald Feldman put 4’33" at the center of their season-opening concert Friday night. The eclectic program was finely balanced between thinkers on the first half and pranksters after intermission.

It was also divided between the new and the old. The first half offered two ambitious world premieres. In the last half, Cage had his fun with the audience and Hindemith had fun with tunes from his old German predecessor Weber.

For the most part, the orchestra, made up half and half of professionals and students, responded to this assortment with gusto and assurance. There seemed hesitation only in the more complex premiere, Robert Kyr’s Double Concerto for flute and clarinet, "Winds of Change."

Cage was serious, in his puckish way, in 4’33", wanting to turn audience noises and other ambient sounds into music. The trouble is (as any habitual concertgoer can tell you) that coughing and other audience noises are already all too audible at concerts. (If you want more, you can step into the street and get an earful of strangers’ jabber on cellphones.)

Feldman played the Cage piece straight, cueing in the three silent movements but avoiding mugging. The audience generously applauded the non-performance. If nothing else, the workout gave the players extra rehearsal time for the rest of the adventurous program.

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The first of the new pieces was "Every Day Blues," a memorial by Williams jazz professor Andy Jaffe to his late colleague Ernest D. Brown. If this was mourning, it was mourning like a New Orleans jazz bandís funeral march: happy celebration.

The piece consists of snippets of the kind of African and African-American music that Brown championed. At 17 minutes, however, the bits and pieces -- many of them interesting in themselves -- came across like introductions without a conclusion.

Kyr’s double concerto, with principal flutist Floyd Hebert and principal clarinetist Susan Martula as soloists, had a dialectic on its mind. Its three movements, each titled "Dialogue," progress from "Opposition" to "Discovery" to "Understanding." The argument is clear.

The orchestral writing, however, is dense, and the roiling solo parts seemed submerged into it. Intentionally or not, the flute and clarinet seemed less like soloists in the conventional sense than appendages of the orchestra.

Hebert and Martula put themselves fully into the performance. Getting set up, Hebert provided a Cage-like event when he took several minutes to arrange the many pages of manuscript across three music stands. In the silence, the audience tittered and Feldman mugged.

Both composers were present for bows.

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The evening’s finale was the thumping march from Weber’s incidental music to "Turandot," followed by Hindemith’s "Symphonic Metamorphosis" on themes by Weber, whose scherzo plays around with the Weber march. The Hindemith movement climaxes in a huge, lumbering fugue that makes fun of itself. The work is all in good, if heavy Germanic, humor. That’s the way the invigorated players treated it.

The program marked the 100th anniversary of Cage’s birth and the opening of Chapin Hall, the orchestra’s home. The group’s usual second fall concert has been dropped in favor of a series of centennial performances of Stravinsky’s "Rite of Spring" in March.