Changing the Rules: The Park Avenue Chamber Symphony's Professional Sound

Classical Music Features   Changing the Rules: The Park Avenue Chamber Symphony's Professional Sound
Writer Jennifer Flaster profiles the success and methodology of the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony- recognized as one of the finest non-professional classical music ensembles on the scene today.

With one gesture, 60 faces lock on to David Bernard. His eyes widen. His arm cuts through the air. And there is music. The majestic opening of Beethoven's Symphony No. 3, the "Eroica," fills All Saints Episcopal Church on E. 60th Street in New York City, the home of New York's Park Avenue Chamber Symphony.

Bernard is the orchestra's music director and tonight is a typical rehearsal. This weekly meeting brings together accomplished musicians, who happen to work in other chosen fields, to create an admired sound that is attracting notice among music aficionados throughout the city.

There are nearly a dozen amateur orchestras in Manhattan alone: not to mention the multitude of professional ensembles populating New York's musical community. So how does an upstart chamber symphony gain the attention of music critics, audiences and celebrity musicians in a city of such musical plenty?

"They perform on a significantly higher level"
Since 1999 when David Bernard founded PACS, as it is known, the orchestra has established its musical presence and successfully attracted the best amateur players in the city. Over time, Bernard has carefully cultivated a musical sensitivity among the players that heightens their collective awareness of the sound they are creating. This sense of ensemble is the essence of chamber music and the solid foundation upon which the group is built. "These are fine musicians who bring a gratifying combination of responsiveness and energy to their performances," says internationally renowned clarinet soloist Jon Manasse, who performed the Mozart Clarinet Concerto with PACS at Avery Fisher Hall in Lincoln Center. "They are not amateurs: they perform on a significantly higher level."

The quality of the ensemble is the result of both the combined experience of the musicians who comprise the group and the uncompromising leadership of its conductor. From Bernard's perspective, "The core elements of great classical music performance: style, precision, pacing, balance: are not the exclusive domain of those musicians who make their living making music. It just seems that way because many amateur groups don't strive to make music on a high level, and it is these groups that have helped give amateur music-making its dubious reputation for being artistically challenged.

"But, it does not have to be that way. First of all, many so-called 'amateurs' are very accomplished musically." Bernard, himself, is an alumnus of the Juilliard School and the Curtis Institute of Music, the nation's top two conservatories. "Amateurs may be conservatory trained, and some have performed in a major orchestra at one time in their lives, but they have decided to make a living outside of music."

Daniel Schulze, a PACS horn player, counts among those who once performed professionally. "My first career was in music," explains Schulze. "I went to Juilliard and the Eastman School of Music, and played in the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra and the Philharmonic Orchestra of Florida. I left music to become a lawyer."

Schulze's perspective only increases his appreciation for the quality of musicianship of his fellow PACS players. "This orchestra is as good as the professional groups I've played in."

Excellence is an expectation

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Concertmaster David Edelson and Maestro Bernard
photo by Jennifer Taylor

Bernard sets high expectations for PACS by design. His philosophy is that an orchestra, or any group for that matter, will only be as good as it is expected to be.

True to this belief, Bernard demands that his players live up to their potential as individual musicians and as an ensemble. To help them achieve this, much preparation takes place before the group assembles at the first rehearsal for any given performance.

David Edelson, a violinist and concertmaster of PACS, is a key participant in this process. Edelson, also a former professional musician, explains that "well in advance of the first rehearsal, the string section leaders get together to review the music. As our maestro, Bernard gives us his thoughts on the music and tempos. All of the string players receive prepared parts ahead of time so when we all arrive at the first rehearsal we can immediately focus on the music."

Sounds logical, but Edelson does not find it to be common practice. "This level of preparation is something that really distinguishes this group. I remember being frustrated as a member of a professional orchestra when the concertmaster was still changing bowings at the dress rehearsal. This is a completely different experience. It reflects on both the disciplined nature of the people in the group and the fact that we approach our participation in the group in a professional manner."

According to Schulze, the preparation that goes into each concert has helped the group excel artistically. "At the first rehearsal, we're already playing at a level that would deliver a fine performance. Since we're starting from that point, we use our rehearsal time to bring out special aspects of the music."

David Bernard is not surprised that his players find themselves flourishing in this environment. "Many conductors water down their standards for amateur players. The truth of the matter is that members of this orchestra are accomplished musicians who long for ensembles that strive for artistic excellence. They want to work hard in rehearsals and give great performances."

According to Schulze, "what helps differentiate PACS from an amateur orchestra is that each member is treated as a professional musician." That respect commands loyalty and commitment from its members. "People are very dedicated," says Schulze. "One horn player arranged her honeymoon around PACS rehearsals. Another player, a professor at Yale, arranged a lecture around a PACS rehearsal. In a few cases I've even arranged depositions I'm doing around rehearsals and concerts."

The group's reputation for excellence attracts an increasing number of talented and well-trained amateur players each year. According to John Yakubik, the orchestra's principal cellist, "We have more people who would like to play with us than we have room for. Many are great players, and I would love to have them join, but we're full."

Achieving that richly polished sound
With a developed sense of ensemble and a strong work ethic, rehearsal time is used carefully to hone phrases and polish musical ideas.

"David Bernard is one of the most organized conductors that I've worked with" observes Edelson. "We cover all the essential points and are able to utilize the time very efficiently. He's able to fix problems readily, so they don't slip through."

Daniel Fierer, a PACS oboist, adds that Bernard's approach and attention to detail brings out the best in his players. "He hears each of the parts and gives us feedback to help us play our individual parts more musically."

Bernard compares playing music to speaking in conversation. "To be understood when we speak, the listener needs to hear the space between words and the intonation. We don't slur our speech and we don't speak too fast. A performance succeeds when musicians articulate, pace and phrase the music so it is clearly understood by the listener."

He applies that theory in his musical direction of the orchestra. "Our maestro doesn't like things overly played," says Yakubik. "He doesn't like a forced sound. He likes something musically pure for the ear. When you hear it, it makes sense. That's what the sound is about."

Attendance and accolades are on the rise
Robert Sherman is the long-time host of the McGraw-Hill Young Artists Showcase on WQXR in New York City. On his program, he has presented performances of the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony, which frequently feature up-and-coming young musicians as soloists. "The fact that they give performing opportunities to young soloists _ã_ that is a service to music, to music education, to artists of tomorrow. And that is a very important function."

His positive assessment of the group goes beyond their embrace of young performers. "I think that the orchestra achieves a substantial level of excellence. They are able to tackle major works that require a high level of precision, like Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. If a group can't play a piece like that well, there's no point in doing it at all. They deserve great credit."

For David Bernard and the musicians of the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony, the group provides an opportunity to channel their love of music and come together to create something bigger than themselves. "The joy of performing is not just being able to be a part of it, but also to do it well," says Yakubik.

And given their performing schedule, PACS is especially joyous. In addition to performing at top venues such as Carnegie Hall, Avery Fisher Hall, Alice Tully Hall and the Symphony Space, the orchestra has collaborated with entertainer Whoopi Goldberg and will be featuring New York Philharmonic Principal Cellist Carter Brey in May. These accomplishments are typically limited to professional orchestras. But when the combined experience of PACS' members is matched with Bernard's careful artistic direction and commitment to excellence, the rules no longer apply. PACS is successfully making itself heard in a city where many other local orchestras _ã_ professional and amateur alike _ã_struggle to find listeners, and the group's momentum is only growing.


For further information visit the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony website.

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