American Symphony Orchestra lives up to its name with “Sounds of Democracy”  

Thu Oct 12, 2017 at 1:42 pm
Leon Botstein conducted the debut concert of The Orchestra Now Sunday at Lincoln Center. Photo: Ric Kallaher

Leon Botstein conducted the American Symphony Orchestra Wednesday night at Carnegie Hall. Photo: Ric Kallaher

The American Symphony Orchestra lived up to its name Wednesday night in Carnegie Hall, delivering energetic performances of works by three mid-20th-century U.S. composers.

The concert, titled “The Sounds of Democracy,” was prefaced with a program essay by ASO music director Leon Botstein that argued for a thread of American political philosophy connecting the pieces by Aaron Copland, Roger Sessions, and Leonard Bernstein.

However, this lineup of pieces might as easily have been called “The Sounds of Diversity,” since the three works seemed to have more differences than similarities when it came to scale, mood, intimacy of sentiment, and musical language.

Copland’s Canticle of Freedom was composed for a public occasion—the inauguration of Kresge Auditorium at M.I.T. in 1955—with the public rhetorical stance of his earlier Fanfare for the Common Man and Lincoln Portrait.  By this time, however, the populist composer of those works had given way to a 50s modernist parting company with postwar-era conformism, particularly Senator Joseph McCarthy’s anti-communist witch hunt.

Whether or not Canticle of Freedom was composed, as Byron Adams asserted inWednesday’s program notes, in direct response to Copland’s having been hauled before McCarthy’s committee and asked to “name names” of communist sympathizers (he refused), the piece had an edgy quality that set it apart from his earlier works.

The ceremonial thump of the bass drum that opens the work recalled the beginning of the famous Fanfare, but amid a more ominous atmosphere. But this was still the Copland of spacious harmonies in open fourths, and soon instruments were calling back and forth across that space like kids summoning each other to play, an irresistible image of both freedom and community. 

And it didn’t hurt that the short-long “snap” rhythm, a Copland favorite, happens to fit the word “freedom” like a glove.

The Bard Festival Chorus entered on that word late in the piece and, thanks to preparation by its director James Bagwell, brought dignity and clear diction to the celebratory text by the Scottish poet John Barbour.

Although one might have wished for more clarity and bite in executing Copland’s powerful gestures, Botstein and his players successfully conveyed the piece’s dramatic and ultimately uplifting character.

Notwithstanding the conductor’s essay, Sessions’s Symphony No. 2 of 1944-46 seemed to have no agenda other than to advance its venerable musical genre, albeit with a certain American flair. Like his compatriots Schuman, Harris, Hanson, Piston and others, Sessions brought a manly combination of propulsive rhythms and unabashed sentiment to the old form that gave it a New World renaissance just as European composers were turning away from it.

Less like the others, Sessions also took intellectual delight in the complications of modernism, and putting across his often-gnarly scores can challenge even the best-drilled orchestras. Botstein’s orchestra of very capable freelance musicians fell a little short on that point Wednesday night, executing tentatively and not always in synch with each other, especially during the first movement’s intricate counterpoint and shifting rhythms.

The movement’s slower interludes, however, came through better, led by concertmaster Cyrus Beroukhim’s expressive solos.  The wisp of a scherzo, seemingly over in seconds, also fared well. 

American composers of the time, like Beethoven, seemed to pour heart and soul into symphonic slow movements, and this Sessions symphony, in its Adagio tranquillo ed espressivo, was no exception.  Although Botstein’s view of the movement as a threnody for the recently deceased Franklin D. Roosevelt would seem to call for resolving the somewhat contradictory tempo marking in favor of espressivo, Wednesday’s performance was distinctly tranquillo and lacking in the tension of grief—or even, actually, the tension of a well-shaped melodic line.

Sessions ended this symphony with a Haydnesque romp, American-style, with lots of percussion, chattering woodwinds, whooping horns, and some Ives-like dance tunes in collision. (Stravinsky’s tumultuous “Shrovetide Fair” was not far off, either.)  A persistent rat-a-tat rhythm marshaled the troops as they put this jolly movement across.

The concert’s second half consisted of Bernstein’s Symphony No. 3 “Kaddish,” composed in 1961-63 and dedicated–after its composition–to the memory of another deceased president, John F. Kennedy.

The rarity of this piece in performance is sometimes attributed to the forces required—large orchestra, two choruses, soprano and speaking narrator. But Wednesday’s rendering, dominated by Thomas Q. Fulton, Jr.’s impassioned performance as the Narrator, suggested that responsibility lies with the overall tone of the piece.

Bernstein’s concept was to alternate choral settings of the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead, with spoken passages in the old Hebrew tradition of disputation with God (of which the Book of Job is an example).  Hanging over the work was not the death of a beloved president, but the threat of nuclear annihilation, felt especially keenly after the Cuban missile crisis of 1962.  “I want to say Kaddish,” said the Narrator at the beginning. “My own Kaddish. There may be no one to say it after me.”

Bernstein first sought a poet to write the narration, but ended up writing it himself because the work had taken on a character of self-revelation.  His model in this was his idol Mahler, but not even that self-exposing composer had included a raging talker, jeering at God like a heckler in a comedy club.

This was literally a far cry from the piety of Bach or the comforting embrace of Brahms, but it went over well at the work’s first performances in Israel. The Boston and New York premieres were another story, as critics (some already ill-disposed toward Bernstein) savaged both the text’s colloquialisms and its Freudian pretensions as the Narrator explicitly substituted himself for the Father. 

These remained a hurdle on Wednesday night, as one found oneself wishing for either a musical setting of the text or at least a more nuanced “disputation.”  But the work’s Mahlerian intrusions of pop music, Bernstein-style, aren’t so jarring any more, and the composer’s beloved Latin rhythms crackled alike in the orchestra and the singing, hand-clapping chorus.

Bernstein’s musical expertise in orchestration and scene setting illuminated the three Kaddish settings—turbulent, serene, and joyous respectively.  It’s no wonder some critics said they wished they could hear the piece without the narration. (Of course, then it wouldn’t be this piece any more.)

The orchestra and chorus delivered the score in all its Coplandesque, Mahleresque and, ultimately, Bernsteinish glory, joined briefly by a glowing if distant-sounding Manhattan Girls Chorus (Michelle Oesterle, director) in an angelic passage.

Soprano Pamela Armstrong was a warm presence in the second Kaddish and subsequently, her voice creamy from top to bottom, rising easily over the dancing orchestra, then pulling back to merge magically with the woodwinds. 

The American Symphony Orchestra will perform works of Bacewicz, Martinů and Schnittke December 7 at Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center. americansymphony.org; 212-868-9276.


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