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Monday, March 30, 2015

Concert Review: Beginning at the Beginning

The American Symphony Orchestra plays early works by major Romantics.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Conductor and college president Leon Botstein.
Photo © American Symphony Orchestra/Bard College.
The annual concert series by the American Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall continued last Thursday with Opus Posthumous, a concert curated by music director (and Bard College president) Leon Botstein and featuring rarities unearthed from the early catalogues of Schubert, Bruckner and Dvořák. Although the works on this program (particularly the Symphony No. 00 by Bruckner and the Symphony No. 1 by Dvořák) have been recorded and are part of each composer's catalogue of work, performances of these pieces are a rare occasion indeed.

Before the concert, Dr. Botstein took the Carnegie Hall stage for a 30 minute lecture and Q & A about this unusual program. He stressed that each of these works show their composers' earliest influences--of Haydn on Schubert, of Beethoven on Bruckner and of Schumann on Dvořák. He also delved into the genealogies of these symphonies and explained why they took so long to be dusted off and performed, and discussed the complexities of Bruckner and Dvořák's social and musical positions in 19th century Vienna and each man's respective relationship with the composer Johannes Brahms.

The concert opened with the Claudine Overture by Schubert, written as a curtain-raiser for a singspiel when Schubert was just 18 years old. This is Schubert as prodigy, with a bold, slow opening in the model of Haydn or early Beethoven, followed by a vigorous Allegro. It was pleasurable to hear the ASO, usually swollen to great size for the performance of  massive post-Romantic works by lesser composers, scaled down and playing with taut rhythms and lush tone in the strings. Concertmaster Erica Kiesewetter was particularly hard at work in this movement, working closely with her fellow first chair string players and keeping this curtain-raiser on the right track.

Anton Bruckner was a composer who lacked confidence in his earlier years, a late bloomer who only turned to published, professional composition after a long correspondence course where he diligently completed exercises after exercise in the fine art of counterpoint.

He wrote the F minor Symphony as part of this endeavor, and referred to it as a Schularbeit or "school-work." (In Bruckner's catalogue, this piece bears the unlikely number designation of "00", to distinguish it from an also unpublished D minor Symphony called the "Nullte" or Symphony No. 0) Bruckner never heard the work performed in his lifetime. At 45 minutes in length, it is short (for Bruckner), and gives little indication of the cosmic storms that the composer would  whip up in his maturity.

This performance allowed the ASO players to show some of the fingerprints of the composer's style: noble, descending choirs of horns, chugging strings in the distinctive "Bruckner rhythm" that permeates his later works, and a sense of solid architecture and scale, with the sound forming itself into looming arches that reach, yearning for the infinite. However, the first movement needed a firmer and more propulsive hand than Dr. Botstein's, and the slow movement dragged. In the finale, as the dutiful Bruckner brought all his themes together in a giant, climactic reprise, one could see the promise in this work. It needs to be played more often.

The same could be said for Dvořák's Symphony No. 1 in C minor. Subtitled Zlonické zvony or "The Bells of Zlonice", it was named after the Moravian town where the composer resided as a teen and studied music theory. The work was written for and sent in as part of a grant application, and was then lost. Bells is a bold creation, with its eponymous percussion instruments echoing in the descending intervals played by strings, trumpets and woodwinds over the work's four movements. The bells are omnipresent in the score, and give it a particular flavor that makes it distinct among Dvořák's earliest efforts. That said, it only existed in one copy, and languished on the shelf of music collector Rudolf Dvořák (no relation) until it was sold by his son in 1920. It was authenticated by experts and finally premiered (in Brno) in 1936.

This may be early Dvořák, but its still Dvořák, with a bold of enthusiasm and irrepressible energy in its first movement. The ASO dove into this work with considerable enthusiasm, applying broad brush strokes of sound to the opening movement and releasing the echoing tintinnabulation into an expectant concert hall. This was one of this orchestra's strongest performances in recent memory, as they played through the lush Adagio and the light-footed, Mendelssohnian Scherzo that followed. The finale had a strong sense of purpose, pointing the way forward to Dvořák's future masterworks and showing that the long neglect of this remarkable work was indeed ill-deserved.

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