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Sunday, February 12, 2012

Concert Review: The Golden Road to Samarkand

Leon Botstein explores Orientalism in France.
Your guide to the East: conductor Leon Botstein. Photo by Karl Rabe.
On Friday night, Leon Botstein led the American Symphony Orchestra and his Carnegie Hall audience in another journey of the deep corners of the catalogue. This concert delved into the sensual delights of 19th century French music, specificially works tinged with the smoky, opiate flavor of "Orientalism." (In this context, the "Orient" encompasses north Africa, the Muslim world, and India.) Incorporating musical influences from those lands was the height of fashion for composers like Franck, Saint-Saëns and Georges Bizet.

The program opened with Orient et Occident, a tripartite march by the clever Saint-Saëns that contrasted "Eastern" percussion and minor-key melodies with "Western" ideas derived from Bach. The highlight: a five-part fugue that firmly anchored the work in the Western milieu. (Saint-Saëns was a master contrapuntalist.) This work was a tease for next summer's Bard Festival, (also directed by Dr. Botstein) which will focus on his music.

Conductor and orchestra then shifted perspectives, moving forward to the fin de siècle for Ravel's little-heard Shéhérezhade Overture, an early (1898) example of the composer's ouevre which owes a strong debt to Rimsky-Korsakov's orchestral technique. This work featured a vast sweep of tonal colors, knitted together by Ravel's mechanically precise musical

For the four Poémes Hindous by Maurice Delage (a Ravel pupil) the orchestra was pared down to a string quartet plus wind octet, accompanying Julia Bullock on these dreamy wanders through the landscape of the subcontinent. These were the most exotic works on the program, written by a composer who actually lived in India for a time. Ms. Bullock sang with warmth and power, the smooth French unwinding like a mysterious river through a shadowy land.

The full orchestra returned for Les Djinns a challenging one-movement tone poem for piano and orchestra. Soloist Julia Zilberquit created thrilling effect wth a smooth, singing tone and a legato that seemed to flow from her fingers. The sound of her instrument materialized  through richly woven orchestration like one of the manifestations of the Arabian Nights. 

The concert ended with a near-complete performance of Georges Bizet's Djamileh, a three-handed one-act opera about a wealthy slave-owner in Egypt who falls for one of his harem girls. This early Bizet opera was a favorite of Gustav Mahler in Vienna. It was originally given in repertory with La princesse jaune, another "Oriental" one-acter by Saint-Saëns. It would be fascinating to see them paired à la Cav/Pag.

Mezzo Eve Gugliotti (last seen in Dark Sisters) was affecting in the title role, which is like a nice version of Carmen. She brought sultry warmth and emotion to the part. Tenor Colin Ainsworth displayed a fine, precise instrument with fresh, youthful tone as the callow Haroun. Baritone Philip Cutlip was a good foil as Splendiano, the major-domo, although he indulged in a distracting ad lib in the middle of the work.

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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.