WILLIAMSTOWN — It must be fun, like driving a shiny new car, to be conductor Ronald Feldman and have the suddenly clear, vivid acoustics of Chapin Hall at your disposal.
For the Berkshire Symphony's second concert in the renovated Williams College auditorium, Feldman exploited his orchestra to the max on Friday night. The result wasn't always tidy, but nobody could say it was dull.
The program featured a powerhouse performance of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto by soloist Mark Peskanov with solid backing from the orchestra. The evening's finale was Brahms' Symphony No. 3 — that's the one with the quiet ending — in a performance that aimed for the subdued tones, the play of light and shadow.
The evening's oddity was Roy Harris' Symphony No. 3, a 1938 work at one time so respected and popular that it was hailed as "the great American symphony."
There's no doubt about it: Music reflects its time, and vice versa. The 1930s,'40s and early '50s were a time when American composers could celebrate the open spaces, folk strengths and pride of a country that was tested by depression and world war and came through.
America had its experimentalists in those days, and Schoenberg and Stravinsky were composing in the styles they had brought over with them from Europe. But a new tone was set by the expansive, optimistic works of composers like Harris, William Schuman and Copland. Then the Cold War and McCarthyism came along and everything changed.
The Harris third is in one movement with five continuous sections. Strongly performed by Feldman and his players — the strings' sheen was particularly fine — it opened with a broad theme that seemed to have rumbled out of the heartland, and went on to a series of calls in the brasses and woodwinds that sounded like summonses to build a new land. Dark and weighty overall, the symphony — one of at least 14 by the Oklahoma-born Harris — seemed to anticipate war clouds and want to transcend them.
Compare that era's vision of clarity with today's babel of often tech-driven composition styles. Or compare it with the deep romanticism of Mendelssohn and Brahms that followed on the program.
Peskanov, the director of New York's Bargemusic chamber series, stepped up to the familiar Mendelssohn concerto with a commanding technique that allowed him to bring out the music's brilliance and tenderness without resort to a patina of sentimentality. Feldman aptly put the orchestra at the soloist's service.
Taking advantage of the improved acoustics, Feldman built to a highly charged release of energy in the final movement in the Brahms. The playing didn't entirely sustain the symphony's subtle or dramatic shifts in emphasis, tempo and mood, but there was urgency enough.
In general during the evening, winds and strings still tended to coexist in a sometimes uneasy balance.
As a bonus to the Harris performance, the orchestra reprinted the work's lengthy original program note from the Boston Symphony Orchestra's 1938 premiere under Serge Koussevitzky.