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Sunday, June 1, 2014

Concert Review: Slaughter-House Four

The American Symphony Orchestra offers Forged in Fire.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The trenches of France in World War I.
The First World War (known as the "Great War" in the years between its ending and World War II) was one of the key events of the 20th century. Starting on June 28, 1914, this five-year conflagration destroyed much of France, severely damaged Germany and cost the lives of an entire generation of young men, slaughtered in the battlefield trenches by the mechanized weaponry of the early 20th century. However, observance of this tragic event has been largely muted, even as the centennial of the war approaches this year.

On Friday night,the American Symphony Orchestra and its music director Dr. Leon Botstein chose to correct this state of affairs with Forged in Fire. This ambitious program explored four very different compositions from the early 20th century, each of them closely connected to the First World War. Deploying vast orchestral and choral forces and a battalion of instruments, Dr. Botstein offered rare works by Max Reger, Ernest Bloch, Charles Ives and Karol Szymanowski, each of them offering a different perspective on the conflict.

The first work on the program was unambiguously pro-German. Max Reger's Ein vaterländische  Ouvertüre incorporates German marching songs and the Deutschlandlied ("Deutschland, Deutschland über alles") in a complicated fugato texture, weaving a tapestry of sound from these gleaming military threads. The ASO responded to the thick textures and brassy calls of Reger's unapologetically pro-German work, written in a rush of fevered patriotism in the early days of the war. The work was well played, but its very end was met with some rude (and very loud) boos in the brief silence before the applause.
Ernest Bloch is a minor figure in 20th century American music, a Swiss emigree who is chiefly remembered in textbooks as the teacher of composer and academic Roger Sessions. His Israel Symphony (a particular concert favorite of conductor Leonard Bernstein) was inspired by the fervent energy of the Zionist movement and the eventual movement to create a new Jewish state in the Middle East.

This symphony premiered at Carnegie Hall in 1917, well before America entered what was then called the "European War.") Heard here, it proved to be a complex, stately work that fuses melodies taken from Jewish prayer services in a chromatic, post-Wagnerian style. With strong contributions from three singers (bass Denis Sedov, mezzo Heather Petrie and soprano Sarah Griffiths) and the Collegiate Chorale, this proved a powerful and stirring work and a much needed re-airing for this forgotten composer.

The full force of chorus and orchestra were supplanted by extra percussionists, celesta, piano, enormous orchestra bells (requiring the percussionist to play while on a step-ladder) and two theremins for the performance of Charles Ives' Orchestra Set No. 2. This collection of three choral works incorporates American spirituals in a typically Ivesian ways, climaxing with a setting of "In the Sweet By and By" that was directly inspired by the sinking of the Lusitania, an act which prompted America's entry into the war.

Although an Ives composition on this massive scale is designed to impress and overwhelm, Dr. Botstein kept his wild array of musicians and singers under relatively tight control. In the work's climax, the twin theremins (each mounted on opposite sides of the stage) lent the hymn a mournful edge, the whole edifice lumbering to life like a skyscraper suddenly learning how to walk. As the huge fortissimo died away, the last words were had by a solo accordionist riding the tail end of this illusory Doppler effect.

Perhaps the most familiar work on the program, Szymanowski's Symphony No. 3 ("The Song of the Night") is also one of the most challenging. This is one of the most important surviving examples of the Polish Romantic style and a work whose huge demands mean that it is not performed often. Written in one continuous arc of sound (that is nonetheless subtly divided into three parts) this work is demanding for both listeners and performers alike.

Szymanowski requires a huge orchestra, the aforementioned choir and an ardent tenor soloist declaiming the ardent, aromatic verse of Persian poet Rumi--in Polish. Heroic tenor Corey Bix used a fine, bright instrument to cut decisively over the thick, smoky orchestration, although he had to sometimes fight to be heard. ASO concertmaster Erica Kiesewetter had her own solo statements to make which were both more lyrical and pleasing to the ear.

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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.