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Monday, February 11, 2013

Concert Review: Death by Chocolate

The ASO presents an apocalypse of...whipped cream?
by Paul J. Pelkonen
What a dessert apocalypse might look like. Image of actor William Atherton as "Walter Peck"
in the last reel of Ghostbusters. Film still © 1984 Columbia Pictures/Sony Entertainment.
On Sunday afternoon at Carnegie Hall, the always adventurous Dr. Leon Botstein led the American Symphony Orchestra in a concert marketed as Truth or Truffles. The program juxtaposed two works that stood at absolute polar opposites on the wide spectrum of 20th century musical achievement. The featured composers were Germans: Karl Amadeus Hartmann, a symphonist who defied the Nazis only to sink into obscurity, and Richard Strauss, whose two years as president of Hitler's Reichsmusikkammer remains an indelible blight on his legacy.

The program opened with the United States premiere of the 1961 composition Gesangsszene, the last (and unfinished) work by Hartmann. This is a setting for baritone and orchestra of the Jean Girodoux poem Sodom and Gomorrah, which recreates the fall of those two Biblical cities through the filter of World War II and the age of atomic anxiety.

Hartmann wrote a grim final testament. Jagged stabs of woodwind and violin filled the space between slab-like brass chords. Hartmann, who wrote eight (mostly) forgotten symphonies, was a conservative modernist, following in the orchestral tradition of Mahler and Berg. His music recalls the heavier passages of Shostakovich without the Russian composer's wit.




The text was sung by Lester Lynch, whose imposing, somewhat steely baritone was well suited to declamations of Old Testament fury. This was not a pretty instrument, but well-matched with the muscular orchestration and bleak sonic landscape. However the most powerful moment came at the end of the pieces when the orchestra stopped blasting away, leaving Mr. Lynch to speak the last few lines. The composer's death left these words without music.

Schlagobers ("Whipped Cream") is Strauss' longest instrumental score, and one that was met with  outright hostility from critics and the public at the work's 1924 premiere. Austria was in the throes of an economic downturn, and audiences were not in the mood for a two-act ballet featuring candies and baked goods dancing in a Vienna sweet shop after business hours. The work has been reviled as Strauss' weakest composition, and consigned to the same scrap-heap as his early operas.

Despite the banal subject and simple, child-like story (the composer prepared the ballet scenario himself) Strauss retains his facility for spinning out melodies like candied sugar, entertaining the ear through 22 small movements.The orchestration is sometimes too heavy for its subject, with shimmering string chords underpinned by tubular bells and armies of brass marching through the marzipan. There are some inventive effects, but the presence of every orchestral ingredient imaginable (including the organ) makes for a heavy meal.

This performance revealed the ballet to be a mature, (if neglected) example of Strauss' fertile middle period. Dr. Botstein chose to conduct the whole ballet, which is almost as long as Salome without the blood and dramatics to keep the listener interested. The ASO players responded with an enthusiastic performance.  But like its titular ingredient, too much Schlagobers makes for a heavy meal. Perhaps this conductor should consider performing the Suite from this score--it goes down a lot easier.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.