Earlier this week I went to Alice Tully Hall to hear the a performance, part of the Wednesdays at One series, given by the Juilliard Lab Orchestra. The orchestra was led by four different conductors, each of whom took turns conducting one movement apiece on each of the program's two four-movement works. The conductors, in order of appearance, were Gregor A. Mayrhofer, Jesse Brault, Benjamin Hochman and Jane H. Kim.
The first piece was Benjamin Britten's Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes, Op. 33a (1945). The opera was one of Britten's greatest successes. Originally conceived while he and his partner Peter Pears were living in California as conscientious objectors to World War II, its story was taken from a narrative poem by George Crabbe that told of a villainous sea captain who murdered his apprentices. Crabbe was a native of Aldeburgh, a town on England's Suffolk coast that was not coincidentally also the birthplace of Britten, and set his poem there. Reading it made both Britten and Pears decide it was time to return England where they immediately set about drafting the opera to a libretto by Montagu Slater. The character of Grimes underwent a transformation as the work progressed and metamorphosed into a much more complex individual, a loner who stands against a society that wishes to destroy him because it cannot understand him. In that sense Grimes stood in for both Britten and Pears who felt ostracized not only as conscientious objectors but also as homosexuals. The four interludes (selected from a total of six) had been written for no other reason than to fill the time needed to make backstage scene changes, but in themselves they surprisingly caught very well the entire spirit of the project. Titled "Dawn," "Sunday morning," "Moonlight" and "Storm," they formed a suite that was almost symphonic in breadth exactly as if Britten had composed them as an independent tone poem.
The second and final work on the program was Brahms's Symphony No. 3 in F major, Op. 90 (1883). This was the shortest of Brahms's four symphonies and in some ways the most straightforward. Built around the musical motto F-A-F (for frei aber froh, "free but happy"), it was composed in only four months. Perhaps what was most striking about the work was its lack of drama. By the time it was written, Brahms was no longer laboring, as he had in the Symphony No. 1, to produce a work that could stand beside Beethoven's. Here there was none of the earlier symphony's turmoil and, significantly, all the movements ended quietly with no overwhelming crescendo of sound. Although still only age 50 at the time he composed it, Brahms was already winding down in his aspirations. Regarded as Europe's greatest living composer (his foremost rival Wagner had died only a few months before), he had little left to prove. This work strikes the listener above all else simply as a well crafted piece of music. It's tightly knit and cohesive and goes about its business without any pretentious airs, the work of a master fully confident in his abilities.
Like Juilliard's other musical groups, the Lab Orchestra, under the direction of Alan Gilbert, is a professional level ensemble that yesterday gave a fully satisfying performance of two complex pieces. Without the aid of an experienced conductor and with a necessarily high rate of turnover among the orchestra's musicians, the quality of its performance was nonetheless impeccable and set a standard that should be the envy of many more established chamber orchestras.