Home Entertainment Review: Leon Botstein and The Orchestra now discover oddities

Review: Leon Botstein and The Orchestra now discover oddities

by YAR

In orchestral concerts, it is unusual for conductors to appear before the musicians have had a chance to tune their instruments. But on Thursday at Carnegie Hall, Leon Botstein took a moment to thank the audience.

“Pretty much nobody knows about these pieces,” he said, referring to the program of 1930s rarities performed that night by The Orchestra Now, his all-star conservatory ensemble, “and the fact that someone came out on a nice May day is a surprise”. miracle.”

A miracle, yes, but modest.

That night, the New York Philharmonic had “limited availability” for its extremely standard-fare concert: Mozart’s “Turkish” violin concerto, Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony. And, across the street from Carnegie’s stage door, the line for a starry, sold-out performance of “Into the Woods” snaked hundreds of feet from the entrance to New York City Center.

At Carnegie, however, there was a lot of red throughout the cream and gold auditorium: patches and entire rows of empty seats. Botstein has made a career of unearthing the unsung treasures of classical music, a noble and essential endeavour. But Thursday’s concert was a grim reminder of just how difficult that job really is; programming takes you only so far in a culture where Mozart and Beethoven, in any climate, continue to have the upper hand.

Of course, not everything Botstein selects can be up to par with the familiar classics. Some are more curiosity than masterpiece, but regardless, he and The Orchestra Now give them top-notch readings, as good an argument for them as you can imagine. And on Thursday, he presented four works that probably won’t become repertoire staples any time soon, but are performance-worthy nonetheless.

They were all written in the second half of the 1930s, a period that gave us music as varied as Berg’s Violin Concerto and “Lulu,” Barber’s Adagio for Strings, Varèse’s “Density 21.5” and “Peter and the Wolf” by Prokofiev. Botstein’s programming was equally broad, with the first half showcasing composers from the Americas, William Grant Still and Carlos Chávez, and the second shifting to Europe, with Witold Lutoslawski and Karl Amadeus Hartmann.

Still was prolific, but he remains best known for his “African-American Symphony,” from 1931. Here he was represented by the later, smaller “Dismal Swamp,” a tone poem for piano and orchestra based on the text by Verna Arvey (his wife and collaborator, even in the opera “Highway 1, USA”). A portrait of an escape from slavery to freedom, it is atmospheric yet tense; at first, both static and dramatic.

Frank Corliss, as soloist, was deftly cautious, evoking the tension of the scene with quiet, mournful phrases, at one point amid an eerie mist of harmonics on the surrounding strings. The anachronistic blues passages, in muted brass and wind solos, felt like a glimpse of a future that seemed within reach of the end, an exuberant climax that finds beauty and a kind of joyous promise in an otherwise dreary landscape.

The revelation of the night may have been Chavez’s Piano Concerto, a three-movement work that works more like one in two parts: a long first section of fickle episodes and another that grows from practically nothing to a huge-sounding finale. and raucous. Thrillingly unpredictable, in its development but also in its rhythms and sonorities, it provided restless training for the soloist, Gilles Vonsattel, who was coolly capable throughout, even as a sensitive partner during a lengthy duet with harpist Taylor Ann Fleshman. in the second movement

After the intermission came Lutoslawski’s first “Symphonic Variations,” opening with a short, simple theme voiced by a flute on pizzicato strings. Between dizzying runs in the winds and intrusive dark textures in the cellos and basses, it can be hard to tell where one variation ends and another begins—so hard that there’s no consensus on how many there are. Easier to trace and more pleasurable to assimilate, is the work’s brief journey from neoclassical austerity to rebellious grandeur.

However, the joy did not last long. To close the program, Botstein offered Hartmann’s First Symphony, “Versuch eines Requiems” (translated in the program as “Rehearsal for a Requiem”, although more impressive could be something like “Attempt at Requiem”). A five-movement collection of Walt Whitman settings—sung by mezzo-soprano Deborah Nansteel between performances of “Lucia di Lammermoor” at the Metropolitan Opera—is a poignant indictment of the war whose 1948 premiere was long delayed due to Hartmann’s condition. as a degenerate artist in Nazi Germany.

Beginning with martial percussion and dissonance, the basis of the symphony is horror. Working from a low tessitura, Nansteel was often a rich but chilling bodied presence, barely melodic and, by the end, delivering Whitman’s “Pensive on Her Dead Gazing” with a ghostly, elevated speech. That move ends with a gunshot-evoking crescendo but stops abruptly, leaving behind a suspended chord like tinnitus.

Conceived at the height of an oppressive regime invading its neighbor, and played now as a similar act of war unfolds, Hartmann’s symphony is a cry against conflict, a warning from the past, but, on Thursday, one that could reach only the few who were there to hear it.

the orchestra now

Held Thursday at Carnegie Hall, Manhattan.

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