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Saturday, March 19, 2016

Concert Review: When Dinosaurs Attack

The American Symphony Orchestra plays Max Reger.
by Paul J. Pelkonen

Please keep your arms and legs inside the blog at all times.
Photo alteration by the author, a parody of Jurassic Park © 1994 Amblin Entertainment.
Max Reger belongs to a shadowy period at the turn of the 20th century, a sort of missing link between the Romantic harmonic complexity of Brahms and the atonal revolution led by Arnold Schoenberg and the Second Viennese School. Yet his major works stand largely ignored, dismissed as difficult dinosaurs that are ignored by most pianists and orchestras. They're long. They're complicated. And they translate 18th century ideas of polyphony and counterpoint to the modern orchestra, offering solid musicianship that, in the wrong hands can be sober and heavy-handed.



On Thursday night, the pioneering Leon Botstein and the American Symphony Orchestra cloned and resurrected two of Reger's large-scale works for orchestra: the massive Piano Concerto and the equally weighty Variations and Fugue on a Theme by J.A. Hiller. They were paired with the Three Études for Orchestra by Adolph Busch, a 20th century German composer more remembered for his violin virtuosity and fierce opposition to Hitler than his compositions. This was three hours of challenging stuff for players and audience alike.

Like the recent John Williams piece Soundings (reviewed earlier this week on this blog) the three Busch Etudes are more about the way an orchestra sounds than anything else. Each is devoted to a different concept: from the sprawling study of Intonation to the quicksilver For Precision and the final For Change of Tempo and Meter. Under Mr. Botstein, the large orchestra responded aptly to this challenge, passing this sort of road test to get on with the long Reger journeys to come.

For the Piano Concerto, the orchestra was joined by soloist Peter Serkin. The veteran concert pianist holds a faculty position at Mr. Botstein's Bard College and is the grandson of Adolph Busch and the son of Rudolf Serkin, an esteemed artist who had a long history with this difficult concerto. Indeed, its opening bars state the composer's intent: a tragic and serious work-through of the opening orchestral subject, answered with equally sober discourse from the piano. This is an exercise in compositional form, as piano dueled orchestra in a battle for dominance in this opening movement, with the eruptions of the tutti threatening to engulf and obscure the determined soloist.

The widely spaced slow movement brought Mr. Serkin and his considerable skills to the fore, with woodwinds and strings tossing answering themes back to the soloist in a deep conversation that was musically correct but lacked any sense of fun. In the final movement, Mr. Botstein gave the orchestra the lead, and they held it through the complicated set of variations, drowning out the soloist at key points and making one wish for more balance and more rehearsals in this supremely complicated, challenging and ultimately rewarding work.

Mr. Botstein and Mr. Serkin were largely successful in his advocacy for the Reger Piano Concerto. However, conductor and orchestra were less convincing in the Hiller Variations that made up the second half of the program. Hiller is a forgotten wunderkind, a contemporary of Mozart and Haydn, largely remembered for having invented the singspiel, an early form of German opera. His music, popular in the 18th century has vanished into the depths of the catalogue. Here, Reger's homage consisted of a set of lengthy, awkward orchestral variations, ten in all capped with a crowning fugue at the end. If the Piano Concerto rewarded endurance, this ungainly opus required a good deal more patience.

The variations themselves have great variety and depth, changing the meter over a wide variety of tempos but offering less interest in terms of tonal color and harmonic development. Indeed, Mr. Botstein made this work veer from the academic into the territory of pedantry, including the final fugue that started in the strings, moved to the woodwinds, and like a large, lumbering dinosaur, threatened to sink under its own weight. With the long-awaited final bars, this great beast lumbered off, leaving huge footprints of sound that may be worthy of more study in the future.
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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.