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Friday, May 4, 2018

Concert Review: The Bad News Brass in: Breaking Training

The Orchestra Now returns to Carnegie Hall.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Leon Botstein leads The Orchestra Now in concert at Carnegie Hall.
Photo by Jito Lee © 2017 The Orchestra Now
Life isn't easy for a training orchestra. Consider if you will The Orchestra Now, which is in its third year of existence and played Carnegie Hall on Thursday night. The idea of TON (as it is styled) is simple enough: an opportunity for grad students in music, studying at Bard College and playing a spate of professional-level gigs at New York venues every season, usually at the direction of longtime Bard president, lecturer, conductor and musicologist Leon Botstein. This year, the first class of TON is about to graduate, and this concert marked a serious and solemn occasion om the great stage of Carnegie Hall.

The idea is solid, but judging from Thursday night, TON has a long way to go if it wants to fill Carnegie Hall. Perhaps it was the program: two obscure twentieth century symphonies and a rarely performed Bartók Concerto for Two Pianos and Percussion. (One of the pianists was the redoubtable international virtuoso Peter Serkin.) Or maybe it's just that this is almost the end of the orchestral season, and listeners may not be racing to go see a program of works they do not know, let alone one with a start time of 7pm.

It was their loss. This proved to be a most fascinating evening a deep dive with Dr. Botstein into some dark and usually unexplored corners of the symphonic repertory. First was the Symphony No. 4, written in 1974 by Ahmed Adnan Saygun. Saygun was one of a group of five composers who are remembered for bringing the art of Turkish orchestral composition into the 20th century. Saygun, who had a long career but is almost unknown outside Turkey, shares a connection with Bartók: the two men traveled together on song-catching expeditions, drawing inspiration from village folk music for their pieces.

This three-movement work proved to be a brawny, muscular exercise in orchestration that owed something to Mahler and early Schoenberg. The work uses heavy percussion and big, brutal slabs of brass to make its statement. The Turkish sound comes out in the sad minor-key string melodies and the pounding, sometimes clattering percussion. A slow movement offered some relief from the assault, but the finale returned with the full force of a right cross to the jaw. Saygun is a symphonist worth exploring further, one of the few major Muslim composers to gain any kind of exposure in the West.

Another neglected name followed: the Symphony No. 7 ("Revolution") by Lászlo Lajtha. One of the most important Hungarian composers after World War II, this symphony recalls the Eleventh and Twelfth of Shostakovich in its chronicling of a revolutionary movement in the composer's native Budapest. In this case, Lajtha's subject was the failed Hungarian Revolution of 1956, a movement that was brutally quashed by Soviet troops and armor and led to decades of brutal social repression. A dark and stirring symphony, it, like its predecessor is worthy of further exploration as is much of the excellent music that was written down on the other side of the Iron Curtain.

Bela Bartók is probably the only name known on this program. And yet, Dr. Botstein chose a comparative Bartókian rarity for this performance with this Concerto, a work that is usually ignored on the concert stage in favor of pieces that don't require the extra piano and a grand total of four soloists. The setup was unusual too, with the timpani, xylophone and other battery placed dead center in front of the conductor's podium. Mr. Serkin was on the left side and Anna Polonsky took the right, their pianos jutting out into opposite sides of the orchestra to create the amplified "mirror effect" desired by the composer.

The work proved compelling, a spinning out of kinetic musical ideas a d a piece unafraid to treat these great black engines of sound as percussion. Mr. Serkin and Ms. Polonsky echoed and responded with each other, dialoguing with the two percussionists, William Kaufman and Miles Salerni. Particularly fascinating was the sonority created by slithering glissando strings and a similar effect on the timpani, as the instrument's tuning pedals were pressed as a note value echoes. The final movement ended with the most characteristic moment of all, a series of final, fading taps on the snare drum. It succinctly said all there was to be said. 

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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.