Violinist shines brightly in ASO concert of neglected Europeans

Fri Dec 08, 2017 at 12:47 pm
Alena Baeva performed Grazyna Bacewicz's Violin Concerto No. 7 with the American Symphony Orchestra Thursday night at Alice Tully Hall. Photo: Vladimir Shirokov

Alena Baeva performed Grazyna Bacewicz’s Violin Concerto No. 7 with the American Symphony Orchestra Thursday night at Alice Tully Hall. Photo: Vladimir Shirokov

The title of the American Symphony Orchestra concert Thursday night was “The Triumph of Art,” presenting yet another of music director Leon Botstein’s imaginative programs advocating for lesser known works and composers.

That advocacy was mostly strong, with four pieces by three composers; Music for Strings, Trumpets, and Percussion, and Concerto No. 7 for Violin and Orchestra, by Grazyna Bacewicz; Martinů’s Symphony No. 6, “Fantasies symphoniques; and Alfred Schnittke’s Symphony No. 5 (Concerto Grosso No. 4). The results left some questions over what might have been, over both the short term and the long one.

The ASO moved from Carnegie Hall to Alice Tully Hall for this concert. There was a full and enthusiastic audience—and even a boisterous audience disturbance before the final Schnittke symphony. (An ASO spokesperson said this morning that an intoxicated patron was ejected, causing the commotion.) The smaller venue flattered the orchestra’s sound, adding a broader and deeper bloom while improving clarity.

That also made the problems of execution in the opening Music for Strings painfully obtrusive. From the very start, the violins could not properly tune Bacewicz’s extended chords, nor could they could keep steady rhythms through the shifting meters. That indicated a lack of rehearsal time, and the slack shape and lack of clear direction indicated a lack of control at the podium.

The performance did not do justice to Bacewicz, who deserves much broader hearing. The Polish composer spent most of her adult life behind the Iron Curtain (she died in 1969). As an artist in those circumstances, she was in danger of committing thought crimes, though the situation for abstract work was better than for writers like Czeslaw Milosz.

Bacewicz’s voice was tonal modernism, incorporating ideas from Stravinsky and Bartók. Her sound combined a tough neo-romanticism with neo-classical clarity of structure and form. She was a fine violinist and wrote predominantly for strings.

That includes seven Violin Concertos, and the last, which opened the second half, is an engrossing and deeply satisfying piece of music. This was emphasized by a fantastic performance from the soloist, violinist Alena Baeva.

Baeva was a magnetic presence, and the sound of her instrument, the fullness of tone, and her marvelously precise intonation were admirable and beautiful in and of themselves Her strength and fire made the concerto sound like a masterpiece (Baeva is making a career, too, out of playing lesser known works).

And it is some kind of masterpiece. What stood out was how Bacewicz made long lines for the soloist and filled them with just about everything;  attractive themes, atonal passages, techniques that in the late 1960s were avant-garde. Everything had equal weight and prominence, with the composer treating glissandos and sul ponticello passages as melodies, not effects.

This made the concerto sound like it was communicating matters of import through an almost alien language—and as a language it had an unmistakable logic. The accompaniment had the same strange, clear, compelling voice. This was an outstanding experience.

As was the performance of Bohuslav Martinů’s Symphony No. 6. Martinů was one of the finest symphonists of the last century. He worked under different aesthetic restraints than Bacewicz, that of exile from his native Czechoslovakia, a stranger in strange lands.

Martinu had the uncanny ability to write music that makes any orchestra that plays it sound like a Czech ensemble, with a bucolic foundation. The Sixth was his last symphony, a concise masterpiece of flow, shadings, long, complex phrases that have a strong pull in one direction and then, a Murray Kempton-like, last-second turn into a cadence that wraps up everything with a surprising, ironic, and apposite logic.

Unlike the Music for Strings, the ASO’s performance here was fine. The orchestra was in complete command and produced the right sound, rich with expression, lean and sonically supple, and well shaped by Botstein.

Schnittke was trapped under totalitarianism until Glasnost and the eventual dissolution of the Soviet Union. Mistrusted by the official authorities, what he discovered in the West was all sorts of standard repertory music he didn’t know about, especially baroque music. Out of this came, among other things, a series of Concerto Grossos—and the Symphony No. 5 is primarily classified as such.

Schnittke ran riot over Western music history, mashed ideas of all kinds. He can sound at times like Ives, but where Ives was recreating memories, Schnittke was like a kid running through a toy store, grabbing everything he liked off the shelves and jamming it into his cart.

Symphony No. 5 starts off as a faux baroque concerto grosso, with a trio of oboe, violin, and harpsichord picking up the orchestra’s theme. The music runs through an eerie sequence that turns the baroque model into something modern and unsettling.

The second movement follows a similar structure, but the soloists come to the fore in the last minute, when the orchestra dissolves, leaving a piano quartet to carry on, like a ghost of the 19th century.

This all finishes with two movements of dense, knotty music, both gripping and abrading. Though he discovered the joys of history, Schnittke rarely indulged happy endings.

There was satisfaction in merely hearing the work—the composer once seemed on the verge of becoming a major figure, before his relatively early death at 64. The ASO played with admirable energy and dedication.

But the piece didn’t start until nearly 10 p.m., and the concert itself lasted 2 hours and 40 minutes. That was simply far too long, especially for this finale. Schnittke demands, and rewards, an energetic concentration. But with the music that had already gone by, it was impossible to marshal mental focus and hearing all the way through. Losing the opening Music for Strings would have solved this problem, as well as dispensing with the evening’s least successful performance.

The ASO presents “Hollow Victory: Jews in Soviet Russia after the World War,” 8 p.m. January 28 in Carnegie Hall.

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