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Friday, October 4, 2013

Concert Review: The Thunder of Invention

The American Symphony Orchestra returns to Carnegie Hall.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
American Symphony Orchestra music director Leon Botstein.
Image from Orchestra in Exile © 2013 Aronson Film Associates.
A Carnegie Hall concert by Leon Botstein and the American Symphony Orchestra demands commitment. The ASO's yearly Vanguard Series offers works from dark corners of the orchestral repertory, often presented in an unyielding marathon of music that packs as many as five compositions into a single musical evening.

On Thursday night, the ASO's first Carnegie concert of the season (and, due to an Oct. 2 strike by Carnegie Hall stagehands, that venue's de facto opening night) featured five musical behemoths, enormous works for orchestra from the 20th century. The common thread: all of these works were by American composers (the last, Edgard Varèse, lived here for 50 years) and all broke new ground in terms of changing how audiences listen to music. A program note (by Dr.  Botstein) tied all five pieces to the Armory Show, a seminal art exhibition from 1913 that introduced new concepts (like cubism) to American eyes.

The program opened with George Antheil's twisting, churning Jazz Symphony conceived as the composer's "answer" to George Gershwin's classical-jazz crossover Rhapsody in Blue. The work opened with a tumultuous piano solo from Blair McMillen, who thundered up and down the keyboard in a solo that was decidedly more classical than jazz. Eventually, the huge ensemble found its footing and engaged in Anthiel's main thematic ideas. The normally crisp ASO players sounded a bit rough in spots--which might be put down to shortened rehearsals due to the venue's labor crisis.

The second piece on the long program: Poem by composer Charles Griffes, was a great improvement on the first. Written in 1918, Poem is was essentially a one-movement flute concerto with a liquid solo part from soloist Randolph Bowman, principal flute with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. Mr. Bowman played with nimble ease, supported by a lush carpet of sound and an orchestra that sounded far more comfortable in this music. Although Griffes (who died at 35) had a brief career, this is a composer who deserves to be heard more often.

Most music lovers know Aaron Copland's work, but few are familiar with his Organ Symphony, with a solo part composed for Nadia Boulanger. Here, Dr. Botstein presented the unrevised version of this s three movement symphony, a look at Copland stretching his orchestral muscles in a fairly straightforward work with a heavy European influence. The organ part (played here by soloist Stephen Tharp) was unfortunately on the Hall's usual electronically amplified organ, a poor substitute for air moving through bellows and pipes. However, conductor, orchestra and organist were able to balance the work, with the finest passages coming in the central scherzo.

The second half opened with Men and Mountains a rugged three-movement work from the iconoclastic composer Carl Ruggles. This was muscular, rock-ribbed music with heavy writing for the brass and percussion. Each of the mighty outer movements flanked a delicate strings-only center, a moment of harmonic beauty and thematic sweetness among all the Nietzchean bluster.

The concert ended in thunderous fashion, with a performance of Edgar Varèse's Amériques. Due to a quirk of fate (and the destruction of most of this composer's early efforts) this work which Varèse embarked on upon coming to America in 1915 is also the first of his pieces to enter the concert repertory. Here, the wide-ranging orchestra included heavy artillery of wind and brass along with an enormous range of percussion instruments. Varese incorporates crow call, siren, wood blocks, bass drum and even timpani in this tumultuous tone poem.

A short downward theme (indicating a bird call)is the musical kernel of the work, setting off rising swells, crashes and booms in response to just a few notes. The orchestra jolted itself, lurching to life. With thunderous, percussive chords, the player drove the recurring theme into exhaustion, before resetting in preparation for another onslaught. Eventually, the work brings the entire orchestra together--accompanied by an offstage choir of even more brass--in a series of hammer-blow tone clusters. As instrumental lines interact and ricochet, sometimes together, sometimes in direct opposition to itself. The results are devastating, conducted here with energy and drive by Dr. Botstein.

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