American Symphony’s mixed season finale proves less than the sum of its parts
Repeated exposure to Leon Botstein’s programming as conductor of the American Symphony Orchestra drives home that even musicians who mount intellectually adventurous orchestral programs can yield results as predictable as the typical overture/concerto/symphony subscription concert.
Botstein likes to make arguments, to squeeze the fascinating sprawl of his thinking into the tight frame of a concert. He programs around concepts then makes unusual choices with which to prove his point. Sometimes this works; other times one has the feeling of hearing the second day of a two-day series.
That was one of the problems with the ASO’s final concert of the season Friday evening at Carnegie Hall. Titled “Forged from Fire,” the music was meant as a demonstration of the rise of national styles in the aftermath of World War I. That in itself is an argument that needs to be made with exceeding care, as national styles were already strong before 1914, and while the war produced drastic changes in classical music, the outgrowth of nationalism is a secondary, if not tertiary, result.
Botstein’s selections were as odd as the argument itself: Max Reger’s Eine vaterländische Ouvertüre; Ernest Bloch’s “Israel” Symphony; the Orchestral Set No. 2 from Charles Ives; and Szymanowski’s Symphony No. 3, “The Song of the Night.” All but the overture featured the Collegiate Chorale Singers, well prepared by James Bagwell.
Taken as pure music, this turned out to be an interesting, varied, though not flawless, set. As evidence for the thematic argument, not so much. The music of Reger, Ives and Bloch was composed prior to the end of the war, and Ives and Reger were musical nationalists prior to 1914. What Botstein produced, perhaps unintentionally, was a strange conflict between those two.
Reger was a proudly Germanic composer, and his overture was dedicated to the German Army at the outbreak of the war and premiered in 1916, a few months before his death at 43. His music is interesting for its craft and promise, but he did not live long enough to move beyond writing contemporary versions of Brahms, and the overture could easily be mistaken for his famous compatriot. This is attractive but not particularly distinctive music. When Reger’s voice comes to the fore at the climax, where a brass choir adds a layer of polyphony to the orchestra, the Brahmsian harmonies and rhythms come to a stop for an interminable, endless, and endlessly unfulfilling climax. The volume and rhetoric can’t fill in for a lack of musical thinking.
Opposed musically and politically, Ives’ great orchestral piece concludes with a moving recreation of his memory of everyday people waiting for the train in Hanover Square one day in 1915, stunned and upset by news of the sinking of the Lusitania. They spontaneously sing “In the Sweet Bye and Bye.”
The orchestra playing in these works, and the entire concert, was strong, with a full sound from each section with good intonation; the strings were often quite beautiful. Just as consistently, the overall blend was off, the brass frequently overpowering the rest of the orchestra.
Botstein also made an odd choice for Orchestral Set No. 2: sometime in the late 1920s, Ives heard a demonstration by Leon Theremin, and added notations that his “Ether Organ” could be used in the final movement of the set. It was exciting to see two theremins flanking the orchestra, but their volume buried all the other instruments, and the chorus singing the hymn tune. Kudos, though, to Blair McMillen, who played the difficult rhythms of the piano concertante part with skill and feeling, emerging here nearly as a second conductor.
The two symphonies, each with voices and structured in three continuous movements—Bloch’s with chorus and bass soloist (Denis Sedov, in impossibly rich voice), and tenor and chorus for “The Song of the Night,” (a soulful Corey Bix)—were the most cogent works, and the orchestral playing was best in them.
Together, the symphonies make a fascinating argument for musical nationalism, albeit different from Botstein’s intent: they are music from imaginary lands. The “Israel” Symphony is a kind of prayer of hope and is an excellent composition. Bloch had a subtler, more imaginative and more skillful way with Brahmian harmonies and forms than Reger, and the phrases are always moving in unexpected but completely logical directions. His orchestration sounds wonderful too. The final movement, “Succoth,” sacrifices some forward movement, but Sedov and the accompanying voices of soprano Sarah Griffiths and alto Heather Petrie shined.
Szymanowski’s symphony has nothing to do with his Polish homeland and everything to do with the poetic landscapes of Rumi, who provided the concept and the sung text. In the historical view, this is the type of “Orientalism” and cultural colonialism that the war set on a too long, too violent, death march. Botstein’s didactic direction held back the last measure of atmosphere that the music demands, but perhaps that was best.