Botstein, ASO bring neglected American rarities to life
One of the biggest puzzles of the New York classical music scene is why there are so few performances of works from mid–20th century American composers. Even Aaron Copland’s most populist music has strangely fallen out of vogue, and orchestras continue to eye Leonard Bernstein’s work warily, as if it might explode if jostled.
Beyond those two famous names, there are a dozen or more composers who wrote terrific orchestral music that, taken together, defines a specific and important American sound: sleek, sophisticated and muscular, a sonic reflection of the country’s power after World War II, well-described by J.G. Ballard’s metaphor for the P–51 Mustang fighter plane: “the Cadillac of the skies.”
Friday night at Carnegie Hall, the American Symphony Orchestra played a substantial concert of this neglected music in a program titled “American Variations: Perle at 100.” The evening was a modest celebration of the centennial of George Perle, an excellent composer and an important scholar, as well as music of his peers William Schuman, Lukas Foss, and Copland. It was the kind of program one expects from ASO music director Leon Botstein: thematic, informed, and arguing for its concept via some unexpected choices.
The problem with ASO concerts is generally not the programming but Botstein’s podium limitations. Friday night, those were also apparent but mostly subordinate, as the music was far better prepared than any ASO concert heard over the last two seasons.
Perle’s Adagio opened the concert, a dusky, voluptuous, somber piece. The rich, slightly unsettling, tonality is a clear reaction to Alban Berg’s Lyric Suite (Perle was an essential critic of Berg). The music has a graceful flow, and a mysterious, inward-turning psychology—the musical idiom is modern, but it has the uncanny feeling of the American gothic literary tradition. Perle’s orchestration combines multiple disparate timbres and colors, and the orchestral balances were excellent. Although the dynamic range sounded constrained, this was a solid performance.
The most extroverted music of the concert was Schuman’s great New England Triptych. Schuman based his piece on hymn tunes by William Billings, and the section titles come from Billings: “Be Glad Then, America,” “When Jesus Wept,” and “Chester.” The tunes are a foundation on which Schuman adds his distinctive polyphony, polytonality, and explosive energy. This is an orchestral showpiece in miniature, and the playing here was impressive. The entire brass section was absolutely brilliant in the first section, and in the earthy second movement the woodwind playing was deeply effecting, especially bassoonist Charles McCracken’s entrancing, touching solo.
Copland’s Orchestral Variations finished off the first half. This is an orchestration of the composer’s 1930 Piano Variations, from the period when he wrote steely, angular modern music, skyscrapers in sound. The music tensely circles its own three-note theme, prodding it into more extended and developed shape. The sharpness of the writing, the clearly defined edges and the machine-like strength, are gripping, but Botstein’s rhythms and syncopated attacks were slack at times and hampered the energetic playing.
That was one of the two consistent frustrations to the concert—the other was the sense that for noticeable stretches the conductor and musicians had their heads buried in the scores, counting beats and moving step by step from one bar to the next, missing the horizon and losing the overall shape and direction of the music. This was a problem in Perle’s Transcendental Modulations, which opened the second half.
Transcendental Modulations comes from late in the composer’s life, and seems an apotheosis. It moves back and forth between lean, even astringent, writing, and rich harmonies and textures that express a romantic yearning that at times erupts and supersedes everything else. It feels ruminative but never loses direction.
The playing was at times expressive and involved, but there were also moments that needed more rhythmic panache. A long, important, atonal string interlude that comes about two-thirds of the way through the piece was a little dilapidated, although concertmaster Erica Kiesewetter’s playing was strong throughout.
Foss’ Baroque Variations finished the evening in style. In three sections, Foss took famous themes from Handel, Scarlatti, and Bach, and disassembled and distorted them until they were transformed into new music. There is a sense of comic playfulness, a sitcom image of someone settling down to listen to a record who is then constantly interrupted by ringing telephones, wacky neighbors, dogs barking. But there is also a plangent feeling of ancient music reaching out to us from the mists of history and memory.
Coming at the end of the concert, the brass showed some fatigue, and again there were some hazy syncopations and marshmallow attacks, but there was also a feeling of commitment and pleasure. There is so much to appreciate, and that titillates, in the piece, including a stretch where the percussion section, improvising, tries to bash Bach’s E-flat solo violin Partita into smithereens. It’s not often that musicians and listeners get to enjoy great music while also poking respectful fun at it. That would seem the highest goal of a symphony orchestra concert.