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Sunday, December 20, 2015

Concert Review: No Country for Forgotten Men

The ASO explores Russia's lost Jewish composers.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Big stick: the composer Anton Rubinstein on the podium. His work was played
Thursday night by the American Symphony Orchestra.
Painting by Ilya Repin.
The concert hall music of Russia has a shorter history than most, as no major composers emerged in that land until the 19th century. And yet, there are as many forgotten and neglected composers from Russia as there are trees in its vast taiga forests. On Thursday night, Leon Botstein chose four Jewish composers from Russia as the focus of a Carnegie Hall concert by the American Symphony Orchestra: Aleksandr Krein, Anton Rubinstein, Mikhail Gnesin and Maximillian Steinberg.



In the Russia that existed before Stalin's reign, World War II and a series of purges and pogroms in which millions were massacred, Jewish composers flourished in Russia. The composers on this program were students of Rimsky-Korsakov, friends of Tchaikovsky, and all representative of the cosmopolitan conservatory-trained post-Romantic school that also spawned Scriabin and Rachmaninoff. Those composers remain regularly played, these worthy four are generally neglected.

This concert opened with The Rose and the Cross, a 20-minute quasi-symphonic ballet score inspired by the work of Russian symbolist poet Aleksandr Blok. Mr. Botstein generated a swell of sound from the orchestra, its four movements reminding one of the symphonic interludes from Debussy's opera Pelleas et Melisande. Muted brass evoked sunrise over a medieval, misty landscape. Motifs emerged from the diaphanous clouds of sound, appearing in the woodwinds and leading to a swell of power from the brass.

The orchestra was joined by the young cellist István Vardaí for the Second Cello Concerto by Anton Rubinstein. This work, with its contiguous movements and appealing themes, would be a welcome addition to the standard repertory for cello and orchestra. Mr. Botstein;s orchestra emphasized crisp textures and a light touch in the orchestration that balanced the severe technical demands of the solo part. Mr. Vardaí played with adroitness, navigating the tricky waters of the long cadenza that separates the second and third movement before launching into a thrilling, almost classical rondo.

The next piece was Prometheus Unbound, an eight-minute tone poem by Gnesin, a composer whose legacy rests in a music institute in Moscow that still bears his name. Gnesin is heard here at the start of a long career, as this is his first completed work. It was written when he was a student of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, a figure who bridges the firebrand "Mighty Handful" of composers with the conservatory culture that emerged in Russia in the second half of the 19th century.

It is impossible to ignore the influence of Rimsky on this short work, which is titled after and inspired by a Russian translation of Percy Bysshe Shelly's poem. This work blossomed in the orchestra like a hot-house orchid. Its swelling cellos and pointed brass writing recalled the perfumed chromaticism of Richard Wagner in its quick, passionate surge to a climactic forte.

The longest and most impressive work on this varied program was Maximillian Steinberg's First Symphony. Steinberg stands eclipsed by contemporaries like Stravinsky and Rachmaninoff, but is an underrated composer. This symphony, built along the large-scale Romantic lines of Brahms and Tchaikovsky, entertained the ear for the first three movements, with the big-shouldered Sonata Allegro gripping the listener from the opening notes. The Scherzo, interrupted by a melancholy waltz, was especially fine and the slow movement was majestic in its size and scope. Only the over-long finale let down the side, as the orchestra hurtled through a series of compusory fugue exercises that dulled with each repetition.
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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.