Greenwich Village Orchestra celebrates 20 years


The Greenwich Village Orchestra has an invitation for you, or perhaps it’s a dare: “Visit us online at www.gvo.org and find out how we continue to put the ‘cool’ back into classical.” Cool? Well, tempting (and improbable) as that sounds, you’d be well advised to bypass the computer and pick up the phone to order tickets for the GVO’s concert this Sunday, November 19, at NYU’s Skirball Center. I’ll see you there.

With 70 volunteer players under the direction of a first-rate music director, Barbara Yahr, the Greenwich Village Orchestra bills itself as the only ensemble of its kind in downtown Manhattan: a full-scale symphonic ensemble committed to providing Lincoln Center quality at East Village prices. Though I’m happy to predict that the newly formed Chelsea Symphony will give it a run for its money.

The GVO’s membership is diverse from every conceivable standpoint, with musicians ranging in age from 22 to 82 — accountants, actors, artists, attorneys, carpenters, editors, physicians, professors, programmers, psychologists and, yes, professional musicians. Its repertoire is diverse, as well: “Bach to Bartok and beyond,” including a fair number of premieres.

As for the goal of “Lincoln Center quality,” there are, of course, marked dissimilarities. The GVO plays in smaller halls with much better acoustics than those you’ll find at that Uptown concert mall — often the sonically glorious auditorium of Washington Irving High School, and now the luxuriously modern Skirball, with more than eight hundred seats. So as a listener, you’re much closer to the action.

Yes, if you’re a rabid orchestral fan — the kind who argues about the comparative virtues of the New York Phil versus the Berlin Phil — you’ll note the absence of a signature burnished sound and the assured precision that identify just a handful of the world’s top orchestras. But you’ll also note a complete absence of boredom and an invigorating sense of commitment. In full-time ensembles, making great music is a job — and sometimes, with the rigors of touring and oft-repeated programs, it sounds like it. At a GVO performance, you will know there’s no place any player would rather be, and you will hear the inner voices of each work with an immediacy and detail that don’t come through at Lincoln Center.

The GVO names its programs, and this Sunday’s is “Celebrate.” If you pay attention to musical gloom-mongers like me as we moan about dwindling, graying audiences and managerial adversities, you might wonder how an orchestra could possibly have reason to celebrate. But the GVO is back after a lamented hiatus, and is marking its 20th anniversary this season — two very good reasons to party.

The program is typically juicy. Working back from the big finish, the concert will close with the Symphony No. 2 of Sibelius, one of the most rewarding of all post-Beethoven symphonists. Shostakovich, whose artistic stock has risen sharply in recent years, will be represented by his uncharacteristically buoyant Festive Overture.

The program’s most provocative entry is its opener: the Concerto Fantasy for Two Timpanists and Orchestra by East Village resident Phillip Glass, one of classical music’s few living celebrity composers. Rarely has a generic title been quite so suggestive. A fantasy? With two timpanists? For better or worse, Glass is famous for minimalism, but scoring for two timpani is hardly minimal.

The timpani soloists are Steve Weiser and Gerard Gordon, the GVO’s own highly regarded principal percussionist. While the GVO often features guest artists, it is gratifying that Sunday’s concert will — in the words of jazz audiences everywhere — “give the drummer some.”

The celebration starts this Sunday at 7:30 pm at the Skirball Center, 566 LaGuardia Place (212-279-4200; gvo.org.)