Berkshire Symphony: The JFK connection


WILLIAMSTOWN -- Was it only coincidence that on the 50th anniversary of Kennedy's death, the Berkshire Symphony played a program recalling the hopes and promises cut short on that day in Dallas?

Director Ronald Feldman probably didn't plan it that way, but the orchestra's Friday night program made a trajectory from the brilliance of Michael Torke's "Javelin," to the mourning of Ravel's "Tombeau de Couperin," to the tragedy of Brahms' Fourth Symphony.

Kennedy connection? Explain, please.

Composed for the Atlanta Symphony to perform at the 1996 Olympics, "Javelin" streaks in a scintillating path across the sky. So did JFK's truncated career.


In the French tradition, a tombeau is not only a tomb but also a memorial composition, or compositions, and Couperin is an early master of keyboard style. The four orchestral pieces of Ravel's "Tombeau," his transcription from his set of six for piano, honor friends who were killed in World War I. The mood of subdued gravity following death suggests a nation's grief following the events of Nov. 22, 1963.

The Brahms Fourth is a great tragic symphony. It is also his last symphony. Biographer Jan Swafford persuasively suggests that in it, the aging Brahms anticipated not only his own death but also the soon-to-come death of the classical tradition that he loved (and enshrined in the Fourth Symphony) and the political apocalypse already brewing in his Vienna.

Wasn't Kennedy's death, in addition to a personal and national tragedy, a tragic foreshadowing of the cultural and political upheavals that followed?

All this made for a condensed but challenging program for the Berkshire Symphony, with its mix of student and professional players. "Javelin," rich in scintillating colors and rhythmic vitality (but a little long for its content), seemed to especially appeal to the players. It received a lively performance.


In the larger pieces, Feldman's conception was sure and the players worked hard -- a little too hard because, apart from the obvious bobbles and moments of confusion, the playing sometimes turned dogged. This was especially noticeable in the Ravel, a set of neo-baroque dances, which tended to march along at a steady gait instead of stepping lightly amid delicate, wistful gestures.


Thanks to the solidity of Feldman's pacing, the Brahms Fourth achieved a rugged grandeur, like a gnarled tree in a forest. The strings were especially good as the playing ranged unevenly from eloquent solemnity in the andante to wild energy in the scherzo. (But did I miss something or was the big flute solo in the final passacaglia cut?)

Whether intended as a tombeau or not, the Chapin Hall concert provided an immersion in Brahms' vision of the value of human life -- a lesson we all learned, or relearned, on that awful day 50 years ago.


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