Botstein’s intriguing program of post-mortem rarities needs more life from podium

Fri Mar 27, 2015 at 6:00 pm
Leon Botstein conducted the American Symphony Orchestra Thursday night at Carnegie Hall. Photo: Ric Kallaher

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

“Opus Posthumous” was the title of the American Symphony Orchestra’s Thursday night program at Carnegie Hall. The theme for the evening was early works by Dvořák, Bruckner, and Schubert that were not discovered or published until after their authors’ deaths.

Of course, it’s no great challenge to find a posthumously published Schubert masterpiece—but music director Leon Botstein’s constant mission is to introduce unfamiliar works to the public, so the magnificent ninth symphony was ruled out, as was the cherished “Unfinished” eighth.

Instead we heard the overture to Claudine von Villa Bella, a singspiel composed in 1815 and left unperformed until 1913. The overture is a charming piece, firmly Classical in style and form, but with a playful wit that is unmistakably Schubert’s—even if it’s not quite the rapturously gloomy Schubert we know from the later song cycles and chamber pieces.

Bruckner’s entry was the “Study Symphony” (No. 00), finely crafted and occasionally inspired. It wanders, and its scherzo is a little stiff, but there are moments of beautiful longing in the melodic writing. Most compelling of all was Dvořák’s Symphony No. 1, only so numbered when the score was recovered in 1923. This is the composer’s longest ad least-known symphony, a work of grand size that also manages to capture attention in its individual moments.

None of these three pieces would rank among its creators’ greatest achievements, but neither do they deserve to be condemned to oblivion. Together they made an excellent and surprising program, as is generally with Botstein’s musical recoveries. But, as is also frequently observed of Botstein, what looks good on paper often does not translate in performance.

The fault, for the most part, does not lie with the players. The ASO’s sound may not be particularly distinctive, but they play with considerable polish and show a wide range of colors. The orchestra’s quality of tone is consistent, and on Thursday they showed flashes of stunning warmth and blooming light, particularly in the slow movements of the two symphonies. Botstein, to be sure, deserves his share of credit for the orchestra’s quality, having led it for twenty years and, one assumes, having had a hand in choosing its personnel.

But, as an instrument needs a capable player, an orchestra is generally at the mercy of its conductor. The issues that hindered the ASO’s playing on Thursday were of the sort that are supposed to be coached out in rehearsal—scant variety of articulation sapped the scherzi of their sparkle. Phrases lacked direction. The opening chords of the Dvořák symphony, which are massive and have a declamatory power, were lazily attacked. Botstein allowed this piece almost to direct itself, and while that worked well enough in the early movements, which need little interference, the scherzo was deadly serious and the finale did not make much of a closing statement.

The Bruckner exhibited little dynamic contrast, and was pervaded by a general listlessness. Time and again, one felt that there was an opportunity for the conductor to add interest, to communicate a strong musical idea, but Botstein glossed over each moment and moved onto the next measure. The finale showed little attention to balance, resulting in a muddy progression that was difficult to follow.

There really isn’t much of a complaint to be lodged over Botstein’s unusual selections or the earnestness with which he champions them. His conducting is another matter—leaving aside what may or may not be addressed in rehearsal, his gestures on the podium are vague, communicating little aside from beats and cues. Rather than admiring the arguments Botstein makes for the works he presents, one leaves the concert hall with an inkling of their potential, wondering where to find a recording of a more compelling performance.

The American Symphony Orchestra’s next concert, “Music U,” will be performed on April 19 at Carnegie Hall, presenting works by Randall Thompson, Horatio Parker, George Rochberg, Leon Kirchner, and Roberto Sierra.

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