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Friday, May 3, 2013

Concert Review: The Shame of a Nation

The American Symphony Orchestra presents Hungary Torn
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The damage done to Hungary by the right-wing "Arrow Cross" movement and the Nazis
has forever scarred the country's cultural heritage. Photoshop by the author.
The horrors inflicted on Europe by the rise of fascism in the 1930s were not confined to Germany and Italy. On Thursday night, Leon Botstein and the American Symphony Orchestra used the work of five relatively obscure composers to explore the detriment of that political movement and the following Second World War on the development of music and arts in Hungary. Their goal: to shed much-needed light on these brilliant voices, silenced all too early.

The concert opened with Yizkor--In Memoriam by Ödön Partos, a Hungarian composer who survived the war to spend most of his later life as a violist in Israel. This is a powerful, pliant tone poem for large orchestra and solo viola, using that warm-toned instrument to express grief for the Hungarian Jews killed in the Holocaust. Soloist Péter Bársony played with rich, soulful tone, passionately accompanied by Dr. Botstein and the orchestra.

Heard next was an Overture by Lászlo Weiner, a promising concert pianist who was drafted into the Nazi war effort in 1944. He died in a Ukrainian labor camp. Weiner's work was richly orchestrated, suggestive of the light operas of Léhar or Suppe. The lush harmonies and old-world rhythms charmed the ear with nostalgia for a world before it went mad. This was the first performance of this work since its 1939 premiere.

Four vocal soloists (soprano Janice Chandler-Eteme, mezzo Jamie Barton, tenor Brian Cheney and baritone Leon Williams) with the Collegiate Chorale joined the ASO for the performance of Lázló Gyopar's Credo from the composer's much larger complete Mass. The setting of the text from the Latin mass revealed a curious, Brucknerian use of almost medieval harmonies over a heavy orchestra that changed tonal colors deliberatly, in blocks and shifts like the stops of a massive organ.

The orchestra was then joined by violinist Bárnabas Kelemen for the world premiere of Mihály Nádor's three-movement Violin Concerto. Mr. Kelemen's solo part was rich in passion and Magyar soul, supported by Dr. Botstein with plush harmonies and a vast orchestral tapestry. It is almost unbelievable that this work is so neglected: it lies squarely in the mode of late Romanticism. Unfashionable, perhaps but this was a piece that needed hearing, a major concerto whose neglect since it completion in 1942 borders on criminal.

The second half of the program featured the return of the four soloists and choir for the United States premiere of Erno Dohnányi's Szeged Mass. This is a rare 20th century choral setting of the Catholic liturgy, written in a late Romantic style that proves compelling in its simple delivery of the text. Unlike most concert versions of the Mass, Dohnányi chose to set the "Ordinary" sections of the mass (Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Agnus Dei) along with the "Proper", sections that are specific to a certain religious feast or event

Dohnányi's setting of the Mass proved inventive, from the soaring transer of vocal line between the four singers in the Kyrie to the glowing, almost transcendent gloss on the Credo. The Credo permitted the composer to show the greatest versatility, changing orchestral and choral textures with each stanza of the long prayer before ending on an air of hushed mystery. The Agnes Dei was sung with fervor and passion Ms. Chandler-Eteme. The whole ended with a thunderous chorale for solo organ.
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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.