GREAT BARRINGTON — You couldn't have asked for a more conventional program: Beethoven's "Choral Fantasy" and Fifth Symphony.
Yet this came from Leon Botstein, the conductor-champion of neglected and forgotten music, with his venturesome new ensemble, The Orchestra Now. Having made their debut last September at Bard College at Simon's Rock, they returned to Simon's Rock Friday night for a free concert of — Beethoven! Between Berkshire gigs, the chamber-sized ensemble ventured out for (among other things) a series of free concerts in the diverse boroughs of New York City.
The campus connection, of course, is Bard, where Botstein doubles as college president and music director of TON. In New York, he heads the American Symphony Orchestra, whose repertoire ranges far and wide.
TON consists of master's degree students in an interdisciplinary program at Bard's main campus, in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y. According to its publicity, the orchestra "mines the wealth of underperformed repertoire, reimagines traditional concert formats and strives to make the experience of the performers a part of the listeners' experience."
Communication with Friday's audience in the Daniel Arts Center — yes. Otherwise, this was standard repertoire solidly performed in a solidly traditional concert format, including preconcert lecture, before a predominantly over-50 audience typical for classical concerts in South Berkshire.
The 40 or so players, seated in 19th-century style with the violin sections divided, responded to Botstein's command with aplomb and spirit, though a few ragged edges showed student status. Botstein was especially good at giving each note and phrase precise value. Usually buried, a nervous cello figure in the symphony's second movement, for example, added an edge to the music's broad flow.
For a reimagining, you had to hear Peter Serkin's startling attack on the big piano part in the "Choral Fantasy," especially in the long opening solo. The piano thundered, purled, surged ahead, recoiled, possibly added a few misfingerings — all this pretty clearly in an improvisatory style such as Beethoven himself would have employed.
Botstein and the orchestra followed dutifully in the sketchy orchestral part until the Bard Festival Chorus and Bard College Chamber Singers joined in for the jubilation of the closing ode to love and beauty. The anticipation of the Beethoven Ninth finale was unmistakable. Wendy Baker, Elizabeth Smith, Teresa Buchholz, Sean Fallen, Alex Guerrero and Aaron Theno made a fine set of soloists.
The Fifth Symphony lacked the headlong intensity it sometimes gets in performances that provide a reminder it was revolutionary in Beethoven's day. The TON performance was admirable for its tautness and clarity — a reminder of why it's good for students to learn the work under a skilled conductor-scholar.