American Symphony provides strong advocacy for weak music in Russian program

Fri Dec 18, 2015 at 12:43 pm
István Vardái performed Anton Rubinstein's Cello Concerto No. 2 with the American Symphony Orchestra Thursday night.

István Vardái performed Anton Rubinstein’s Cello Concerto No. 2 with the American Symphony Orchestra Thursday night.

One night after Evgeny Kissin presented music and poetry from Russian Jewish artists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries in Carnegie Hall, Leon Botstein brought his American Symphony Orchestra to the same stage for a concert program with the title, “Russia’s Jewish Composer.” What a difference a day makes.

Not in all ways, though. The playing, as it was with Kissin and in the ASO’s season opener, was first rate. Botstein placed the cellos next to the first violins, with the basses in a single line behind the first violins, and that gave the orchestra a prominent and pleasing foundation with a substantial sonority even when the music was at a murmur. Balances and blends were well crafted, and the orchestral color sounded ideal for the music on the program.

The music demanded that color. While the composers were all Russian Jews, the works—Aleksandr Krein’s tone poem The Rose and the Cross, Op. 26; the Second Cello Concerto of Anton Rubinstein, with soloist István Vardái; Mikhail Gnesin’s From Shelley; and Maximiliam Steinberg’s Symphony No. 1—were notably Russian in style, with nary the call of a cantor or a klezmer.

All this music is rarely heard. Although Krein was played on two consecutive nights, The Rose and the Cross made its New York premiere, while the works of Gnesin and Steinberg had never before been played in America.

Rubinstein’s music is relatively well known, but years go by without a piece of his appearing on a concert program.

Unfortunately, the other consistent feature of the music, and the great divide between the previous night’s concert, was that all of the music was second rate. This was particularly disappointing with Krein, whose Suite dansée was stimulating the night before.

His tone poem, subtitled “Symphonic Fragments after Aleksandr Blok,” is a narrative response to the poet Blok’s symbolist play. It is filled with orchestral colors out of Rimsky-Korsakov (the shadow of Rimsky-Korsakov, along with Tchaikovsky, fell over the whole evening) and is built around a capable theme that spins through five linked sections, but it’s all plot with no story. Musical events happen one after the other, but there’s little discernible structure to keep things together in an interesting way, and the writing doesn’t yet have the skill Krein’s piano piece displayed.

Rubinstein’s concerto is full of nice tunes, and Vardai’s playing was splendid. He made his cello sing with refined, expressive tone. As enjoyable as it was to hear the soloist lay out the melodies, the concerto does little more than that. The music never develops any direction or tension, it just moves from tune to tune. As fine as those are, the form, a kind of slow, extended rondo, grew tedious. Vardái was a pleasure to hear throughout, though, the experience of his playing was winning.

Gnesin’s name survives in the Gnesin Institute in Moscow, named after the composer and his three sisters, who were pianists. He also studied—as a peer of Stravinsky—with Rimsky-Korsakov. His tone poem, a response to Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound, is a pleasant, innocuous knock-off from Scheherazade, music from a composer who had not yet found his voice. This also brought out the best playing of the night from the ASO, focused on making the colors as luscious as possible.

Lack of voice was the problem with Steinberg’s symphony. From this predictable and formulaic work, it’s hard to imagine that he, as Botstein wrote in the program notes, he was ever a rival of the titanic Stravinsky. Perhaps it was social, as Steinberg not only studied under Rimsky-Korsakov but married his daughter. The symphony has the numbing appeal of an episode of Law and Order, rather than the meaningful, exciting formal play that can be found in the best genre movies and novels, which explains why the moderate-sized crowd both applauded after each movement and leaked noticeable groups during the forty-minute duration.

Other than Rubinstein, all the music came from the first quarter of the 20th century, Krein’s during the fraught period of the Communist Revolution and Russian Civil War, Gnesin’s and Steinberg’s written during and after the Russo-Japanese War and the social and political upheaval that followed that.

In those circumstances, it’s curious why all the music was so backward-looking. In a nation divided against itself, exactly which side owns the past and the present? And in a country where Jews were subject to numerous pogroms, what does following the national style mean? Who were these composers writing for, and who was listening to them?

The American Symphony Orchestra plays music of Adolf Busch and Max Reger, with pianist Peter Serkin, March 17, 2016 at 8 p.m.

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