Botstein leads The Orchestra Now in rare symphonies by Herrmann, Korngold

Sat Nov 04, 2017 at 1:34 pm
Bernard Herrmann's Symphony No. 1 and Suite from "Psycho" were performed by Leon Botstein and The Orchestra Now Friday night at Carnegie Hall.

Bernard Herrmann’s Symphony No. 1 and Suite from “Psycho” were performed by Leon Botstein and The Orchestra Now Friday night at Carnegie Hall.

 “A Night Not at the Movies”—no symphony orchestra has used that title yet in the rush to put Star Wars, Harry Potter, et al. on concert programs.  But it would have suited Friday night’s program of The Orchestra Now at Carnegie Hall, conducted by Leon Botstein, which featured symphonies by two composers known mainly for their work in films.  

Bernard Herrmann (1911-1975)  composed prolifically for dozens of films from The Devil and Daniel Webster to Taxi Driver, but is remembered most of all for collaborating with Alfred Hitchcock on such masterpieces of suspense as Psycho, Vertigo, North by Northwest and The Man Who Knew Too Much.  The existence of his optimistically-titled Symphony No. 1 (there never was a Second) was known to just a few adventurous conductors and record producers.

And although Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957) clings to a place in the repertoire with works such as the Violin Concerto and the opera Die tote Stadt, he is most famous for emigrating from Vienna to Hollywood in the 1930s and founding the grand Romantic style of Hollywood music in films such as Captain Blood, The Adventures of Robin Hood, and Kings Row. His single Symphony, a product of his post-Hollywood years, has found few champions in the concert hall.

Until Friday night, at least. The young musicians of The Orchestra Now (abbreviated “TŌN,” pronounced “tone”), who are all master’s degree candidates in orchestral performance at Bard College (where conductor Botstein is president), tore into these two unfamiliar but richly-scored symphonies with gusto.  If they couldn’t singlehandedly restore them to the repertoire, they at least gave Friday’s audience a vivid musical experience with not a foot of film in sight.

Well, maybe a few feet.  The two rather lengthy symphonies—each of which might have benefited from a sharp pair of scissors—were preceded by a masterpiece of creepy concision, Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho Suite, assembled by the composer from snippets of his score for Hitchcock’s classic 1960 film.

Composed for strings only—an innovation that echoed throughout the film world and as far as the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby”—Herrmann’s score provided the emotional underpinnings for the film’s desolate landscape of madness and murder. 

The Suite’s eleven micro-movements were a reminder of how efficiently Herrmann accomplished his task, with just a wan harmonic here, a soft shudder there.  Even the famous shower scene was over in a few seconds of shrieking glissandos and horrible, hacking chords. Only the unforgettable opening-credits music—nervous, driving figures answered by a queasy melody for violins—resembled what one would call a composition. The TŌN string players rendered it all with admirable control and sense of atmosphere.

Herrmann’s symphony, composed in 1940-41 and revised in 1973, also dwelled on the dark side, but any resemblance to Psycho ended there, as whooping horns plunged the first movement into a big, urgent tutti. Thick, brass-heavy scoring posed all manner of balance problems for conductor and players as the score pushed its dissonant agenda, but maybe this music wasn’t meant to sound classically transparent anyway.

The diabolical Scherzo—again heavily scored and somewhat lumbering in this performance—all but quoted Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, its obvious model, right down to the plaintive oboe melody in the trio. In the Andante sostenuto, the low woodwinds and double bass sonority of Tchaikovsky’s glummer moments prevailed, tending to engulf the solos for clarinet and other winds.

The sound lightened a little for the finale, a big-footed dance with a touch of Holst’s “Jupiter” about it.  Bumptious tutti alternated with sinuous wind solos over pizzicato and triangle, and the symphony closed in a mood of hoedown Americana à la Morton Gould.

It may be that no orchestra, student or professional, could have welded Herrmann’s collection of dissonant symphonic moments into a coherent arc of expression.  One hopes that some others will try.

Korngold, on the other hand, had gained plenty of experience composing in long forms before he became the master of the Hollywood moment, and his Symphony in F-sharp major, Op. 40, composed between 1947 and 1952, reflected that in the sweep of its ideas.  The composer was also obviously well versed in the scores of Wagner and Richard Strauss, borrowing stylistically from the malleable harmonies of one and the exuberant energy of the other.

At the same time, the music was unmistakably Korngold, and images from the movie house sprang up unbidden in the mind: Roman legions on the march, a ship tossing in a storm, an oriental queen’s boudoir fragrant with harp and strings.  But there was no cinematic equivalent for Korngold’s boldest stroke, the remarkable pizzicato-and-xylophone chords that opened the piece and continued to punctuate the first movement.

The Scherzo nicely contrasted chattering strings with sarcastic wind solos and a heroic horn theme, then wove an exotic trio out of a few strokes of muted strings. 

A striking three-note motive held together the Adagio, which nevertheless seemed overlong.  Korngold dedicated the entire symphony to the memory of the wartime president Franklin D. Roosevelt, and in this movement, which summoned up images of ruins by moonlight, one could feel the composer’s nostalgia for past glories.

Droll dissonances and syncopations created a Shostakovich-like environment for the finale’s catchy flute tune and the cellos’ jaunty rejoinder.  Film composer Korngold loved his tutti, but used it here more deftly and transparently than Herrmann did in his symphony.  The piece ended with recollections of previous movements—a device Korngold used effectively at the ends of films—before an exhilarating dash to the finish.

If the young players didn’t quite reach a professional standard of crisp execution, they made up for it in enthusiasm, and the applause for Korngold’s colorful work was loud and long.

Not as long as at some symphony subscription concerts, however, because certain customs such as repeated callbacks for bows and not applauding between movements were unknown to a large portion of the audience. 

It was of course good to have so many newcomers to the concert hall, but apparently someone concluded that these persons would fall into a swoon if presented with actual information about the works performed. The notes in the program were reduced to a paragraph per piece, and in case that was too much, concertgoers were also given a card listing only dates and movements.

Two orchestra members, profiled in the program book, read brief personal essays on the music from the stage. It was a sketchy presentation indeed, especially coming from a program of an accredited liberal-arts college.

One can only hope the young musicians’ fine and energetic playing represents the future of classical music, rather than Friday’s dumb-and-dumber packaging of the event.

The next concert of The Orchestra Now will be conducted by Gerard Schwarz and present music by Eugene Goossens with Bruckner’s Symphony No. 4 (“Romantic”) at Symphony Space, 2537 Broadway, 4 p.m. Nov. 19.  Admission free, RSVP requested at; 646-237-5034.

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