Tuesday, May 8, 2012

A Night at the Symphony

Through the generosity of a friend, I was able to attend a performance at the Fisher Center at Bard College, a location close to where I live. The concert featured the American Symphony Orchestra, the same orchestra founded by Leopold Stokowski back in 1962. I had been able to hear this group before at the same location in performances of Sibelius, Barber and others. These were remarkable performances, especially the Sibelius 7th, conducted then as they were at this concert, by Leon Botstein, the orchestra's music director and principal conductor, and President of Bard College. I'm certain that Botstein must be one of the busiest men in existence, his works are prodigious. His book is on my list of to reads. Judged by his past performances with this orchestra, the impression is that these people will play for him passionately and with precision in a manner to bring up to date many of the great works in the standard symphonic repertoire.

New York City has their Avery Fisher Hall. In the Hudson Valley, we have the Fisher Center, or more properly, the Sosnoff Theater, which seats 900 comfortably. It's located on the campus of Bard College. On previous occasions, including dance and opera, the house was packed. We call this an event being well attended, which is the real goal of live performance producers. The audience one would expect for a night at the symphony is on the senior side, even if the performers might be quite young. As I took pains to point out in a previous post, there is a real reason for this, directly associated with emotional maturity, something that's seemingly difficult to acquire in modern society these days.

On previous occasions our seats had been in the gods, but tonight we sat in front row seats which placed us just in front of and below the principal cellist, with an easy glance left over to the first and second violins. The conductor and his movements would all be easily visible so I would have occasion to see Maestro Botstein's particular style up close.

The music for this program was all 20th and 21st century; modern. Those who never attend concerts of modern music should give them a try as they are getting better all the time. Expect to be quite surprised. In this case I knew half the music being played, while there were two works to be played that I had never heard before. All were concertos.

As Professor Peter Laki attempted to point out in an optional lecture preceding the concert (we particularly liked his impromptu singing in Hungarian and Polish), a concerto has about it something involving a solo instrumentalist playing against a background or alternate chorus of other instrumentalists; soloist vs. group or band. In the concertos by Christopher Brubeck and Howard Shore, the instrumental soloists were a bass trombone and a cello, whereas in the concertos for orchestra, the entire orchestra was used periodically (or episodically) as a soloist and alternatively as the alternate chorus.

The concept of a concerto goes back a few hundred years now, to times when certain people could afford to hire string bands and other assorted instrumentalists and where soloists were encouraged to show off. Some concertos are of this particularly flashy virtuoso variety, while others notably attempt to draw the role of the soloist into the musical fabric of the orchestral background, such works usually denoted as concertos for whichever solo instrument AND orchestra.

Now enduring my criticisms, the new concertos:

Tamas Markovics played the Christopher Brubeck Bass Trombone Concerto to open the programme. The work featured a sub-group of players situated in a balcony. This technique has been used by many composers going back to Hector Berlioz. This concerto was interesting, intense and likable, but nothing about it is particularly memorable from a musical standpoint. What one likes to hear, or would in a repeat performance, is what one saw from this one; a lot of energy, well played regardless of the notes, the right attention to stylistic detail, all of which Markovics, the American Symphony and Botstein certainly knew how to deliver.

As a composition, the piece was a bit long, a bit of a jumble, with some interesting ideas that could have been scaled back a little. One element that predominated, and why not since this piece is by an American, is the sort of insouciant innocence pervading it. Maybe I just don't particularly enjoy being reminded of this uniquely American … quality, however of all possible instruments, the bass trombone is capable of executing a wide range of the more crude or savage emotions. They are real if not pretty. I liked the piece enough to recommend it, but as a composition it really rates only a B grade.

Then, Sophie Shao appeared with her beautiful cello, which one could immediately tell was something special as she began tuning it. It had belonged to Pablo Casals, who for those who might not know, was at one time the senior representative of classical music worldwide, a great cellist and a wonderful human being. What music, one wondered, would Shao, a teacher at Bard, elicit from such an instrument?

Then the Howard Shore Cello Concerto began, subtitled Mythic Gardens. I think it was only a matter of a few bars and I knew I was in for a musical catastrophe; a composition so badly conceived and written that it would be impossible to guess or even remember what if any real music was ever played by either the valiant Ms. Shao and her beautiful cello or for that matter the wonderful American Symphony Orchestra performers. I don't know what political or other ambitious foils went behind this “world premiere” but I hardly care. Others may fawn over whatever creation the movie score composer for the Lord of the Rings might come up with, I for one wont sit back apologetically and hide my contempt. It wouldn't serve the purposes of music to do so.

Ever hear opera where the most inane things are given song? It's easier to spot in musical dramas, especially those by Stephen Sondheim, who does it all the time. Ever wonder why you go to some of these things and feel a cringe? This was one element in Shore's concerto. The rest of it was about as dull, dead, dusty and needlessly arcane as possible. It wasn't even good enough to be used for some horribly trite Tim Burton (no relation) movie, not scary enough. This music was almost on purpose, needlessly dull. And it lasted of course way too long.

Here's another obvious criticism; when you are building a concerto one has to allow SPACE in the music for the soloist to be heard. This is a basic concept. Shore never applies it. Go figure. Mythic Gardens? What gardens? The myths must be pretty old, dull, tired and dusty. My guess is that this piece was intentionally intended to be something horridly academic, probably full of all kinds of clever tricks which purport to engender greater intellectual depth, or whatever. Forget it. I never want to hear this piece again. It gets an F. The orchestra and soloist should be roundly commended for enduring the tremendous bother of playing it.

Then we came to the real stuff; the two standout orchestral concertos of the now concluded 20th century, first, before the intermission, the Concerto for Orchestra by Witold Lutosławski and then the monumental one by Béla Bartók. I have known these pieces before this concert, had even heard the Bartók played before, many years ago at the other Fisher Hall by the NY Philharmonic under Loren Maazel.

The American Symphony really aced the Lutosławski. I stood up to complement them after it was over but sat down when I realized no one else had really gotten it. There should have been a standing ovation. (The nods I received from the first chair violinists, whose instruments we could hear individually from where we were, are here gratefully acknowledged. I for one knew how accomplished your work had been, whether anyone else in the hall understood it or not.)

This composition dates from post-Stalinist times in Eastern Europe, has an undeniable prophetic and very political message, though it's delivery is covert because it had to be as the composer was working from within a totalitarian political machine. As some compositions do, this one made its composer world famous. No, the music isn't pretty; it's huge jagged and intense and rarely if ever tonal. To the uninitiated, as it seemed to someone I heard after it was over, it was as if they'd endured some vast and terrible storm. There are the three knocks, the incessant knocks at the door in the dead of night, terrifying in their implications. Lutosławski was giving us the palpable chill of the continued terrorist inhumanity of the regime he was living under and giving us all a warning ever to beware of such ever creeping into our societies.

What can one meaningfully say about the Bartók Concerto for Orchestra? Not much. It easily ranks among the greatest symphonic works of the 20th century. It was played wonderfully. Botstein's style of conducting is conservative and looked to be particularly easy to follow, and throughout the entire evening's performances, his intentions seem clear; let the musicians play the music and define as necessary, producing a modern but definitive performance. How many ever consider that the greatest attribute of this work is its economy? You hardly ever hear anything twice and never too much of anything. The score is full of all sorts of unique ways to create spaces and atmospheres. (Lutosławski and Chris Brubeck obviously knew this, somehow it escaped the hapless Shore).

There is nothing like hearing it live. Those who haven't should start by looking into their local musical offerings, the musical groups, local symphony orchestras, who will be appearing somewhere close by. Maybe you wont hear big name performers, but then again you wont be paying big name ticket prices either. We thought it was the music which came first, not racking up celebrity sightings.

Meanwhile we also couldn't help wondering just what others who very well might be coming to hear a symphony orchestra for the first time might be experiencing. How much should they need to know to have a good time? By a good time, we don't mean by the way to be fizzed up with something remorselessly pretty or ravishingly beautiful. Music is capable of that, but most of the really great music is full of stronger stuff. During the intermission I overheard people complaining that long concerts should feature things like back to back Beethoven symphonies. Well, certainly they could, but then we wouldn't get to hear what we really do need to be hearing too; the very clear political warnings in the Lutosławski or the various states of personal and universal anguish in the Bartók. At this point in history, these messages are more vital than ever.

Sosnoff Theatre
PS. The American Symphony Orchestra is one of the finest groups of musicians I have ever heard, their musicianship and commitment are often startling, but many of their instruments could and should be replaced. I don't know how this would be done except to raise money specifically for this purpose. Anyone of course may respond to any of my posts but in particular members of the ASO are welcome to comment further.


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