On Tuesday, December 4, Stephen Simon conducted the opening concert of a three-concert series by l’Orchestre des Portes Rouges, the chamber symphony Simon formed in 2011, dubbing it “the little orchestra with big surprises.” Maestro Simon and his wife and collaborator, Bonnie Ward Simon, themed this new group to present lesser-known treasures from the classical pantheon performed by some of the finest instrumentalists in the city in a delightfully unexpected venue. The concert featured works by Telemann, C.P.E. Bach, Bartók, and Mozart and took place in the intimate and acoustically rich setting of the mid-nineteenth century “Church of the Red Doors” on the Upper East Side.
In the 1970s, Stephen Simon served as Music Director of the Handel Festival of New York at Carnegie Hall. Motivated by a penchant for discovery and an allergy to stodginess, Simon created modern performing editions of little-known Handel works, and conducted many of their American premieres. Simon has continued his quest for new ways to engage and inspire contemporary audiences through a long career that includes guest conducting around the globe, numerous award-winning recordings, and a 26-year stint as Music Director and Conductor of the Kennedy Center’s Washington Chamber Orchestra. While at the Kennedy Center, Stephen and Bonnie Ward Simon turned thousands of young people on to classical music through such enormously successful initiatives as the Concerts for Young People series, and their Stories in Music™ and Great Composer concerts.
The December event delivered surprises for even the most seasoned chamber orchestra fans. The concert began with a performance of the Triple Horn Concerto in D major of Georg Philipp Telemann (1681–1767). New Yorkers experienced a "first" as the horns reverberated to stunning effect in the intimate setting of the 250-seat church. The work, which was composed between 1708 and 1714, includes a lovely middle movement for solo violin which was performed by the dynamic young Honduran-American violinist Jorge Avila. The French horn soloists were Nancy Billmann, Sara Cyrus, and Theresa McDonnell.
Another superb piece rarely, if ever, played in New York is the Flute Concerto in G major, H.445, of Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach (1714–1788). Sato Moughalian, cited recently by The New York Times for “particularly fine playing,” was the featured soloist. The work is full of imagination and surprise and has the wide emotional range characteristic of C.P.E. Bach’s Empfindsamer Stil (“sensitive style”).
The audience then visited the twentieth century and the Divertimento for Strings of the Hungarian composer and pianist Béla Bartók (1881–1945). Written in 1939, the work is less intense and more accessible than Bartók’s earlier works. Its sunny mood abated, but only briefly, in the slow second movement, a moment of foreboding for a Europe verging on war.
The concluding work of the program was Symphony No. 29 in A major, KV 201, of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791). As characterized by the British musicologist Stanley Sadie, the symphony is "a landmark ...personal in tone, indeed perhaps more individual in its combination of an intimate, chamber music style with a still fiery and impulsive manner." Maestro Simon’s successful wager was that the Mozart piece would cap an evening of surprises as the fiery spirit of the work resonated to great effect within the stone walls of the little, historic church. Indeed it did!
L'Orchestre des Portes Rouges concerts are held at Church of the Resurrection (a.k.a., “the Church of the Red Doors”), 119 East 74th Street (between Park and Lexington Avenues), New York, NY. Additional information at http://lopr.org.