Botstein, American Symphony spin That 90’s Show with percussion aplenty 

Mon Jun 06, 2022 at 2:35 pm
Matthew Lipman performed Richard Wernick’s Viola Concerto with Leon Botstein conducting the American Symphony Orchestra Sunday at Jazz at Lincoln Center.

If, like this writer, you worked for a big-city symphony orchestra during the early 1990s, you would have seen a parade of new works cross the stage, each seemingly with a larger percussion section than the last. It was as if, having run through all the permutations of the tetrachord, composers turned to orchestral timbre for novelty instead. That meant percussion, and loads of it.

Sunday’s program of the American Symphony Orchestra in the Rose Theater of Jazz at Lincoln Center brought back those thrilling days of yesteryear with three outstanding works composed between 1986 and 1998, plus a world premiere by Roberto Sierra, who was a rising star then and hasn’t lost a step when it comes to bold concepts and high-energy sound.

Sadly, the traffic jam for the “contemporary piece” slot on orchestra programs is worse than the Lincoln Tunnel on Friday afternoon. New works keep driving up and nosing in, and last year’s brilliant premiere has a hard time finding a deuxième, much less a troisième.

The ASO’s conductor, Leon Botstein, has made it his mission to remind listeners—including, one hopes, some orchestra managers—of the riches to be found in America’s orchestral past, both distant and (as on Sunday) not so distant. Sunday’s well-paced and -balanced performances of landmark works by Melinda Wagner, Richard Wernick, and Shulamit Ran—three composers linked by teaching and sponsoring relationships–admirably showcased the profound emotions and direct audience appeal that characterized the best music of that time.

One could call it “so 1990s” that a flute concerto with strings also included a large percussion section. But it was Melinda Wagner’s extraordinarily expressive use of that section that helped earn a Pulitzer Prize for her Concerto for Flute, Strings and Percussion. With a pitch range that tested the limits of human hearing from the stratospheric tinkle of the bell tree to the subterranean rumble of the bass drum, Wagner created a vast, kaleidoscopic sonic space to move through and interact with for Sunday’s flute soloist Tara Helen O’Connor.

Working within the traditional three-movement concerto scheme, O’Connor projected the emotional complexity of the first movement—athletic one moment and lost in thought the next. Her tone broadened, daringly free of vibrato, for deep dialogue with a solo cello in the long-lined slow movement. In the capricious finale, she showed a saucy snare drum her flute could bite back.

In the relatively intimate space of the Rose Theater, Wagner’s sound world felt wonderfully present and enveloping. In contrast, the pumped-up fortissimos of Sierra’s new work, Ficciones, Concerto for Electric Violin and Orchestra, threatened to blow the walls out.

And soloist Tracy Silverman’s electric violin was not your father’s violin, slightly amplified so one could hear it better. It was a whole new instrument, as Silverman demonstrated in the work’s opening bars, scratching out a fiercely distorted low note that Jimi Hendrix would have been proud of. Thereafter, he artfully used a pedal to manage his wide-ranging timbre and dynamics.

In a program note, the composer described the surrealistic stories by Jorge Luis Borges that inspired each of the work’s four movements. These were not listed on the program’s title page, and the audience applauded after each, thinking the piece might be over. By the fourth movement one was ready for just that, as, despite Sierra’s imaginative response to Borges’s metaphors, the constant assault of crescendos and sforzandos in the small room was causing listening fatigue.

The first movement, based on the story “El Aleph,” dealt in Latin rhythms for claves and bongos and bluesy glissandos for the violinist. The vigorous “Tión, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” was anchored by a pedal note C sounding somewhere in the orchestra at all times and occasionally a ticking clock. “La casa de Astérion” was an explosive scherzo, with the soloist fiddling fast and bowing percussively. The finale, “The Immortal,” began with more sustained energy and line; the electric violin’s solo cadenza somehow dipped deep into cello range, before Latin rhythms returned, driving the music to a furious, Dionysian conclusion.

Although its prospects may be limited by the availability of electric violinists of Silverman’s caliber, Ficciones would make a powerful impression in a large hall, if some major orchestras cared to take it up.

Still, one has to admit it was a relief when, after intermission, violist Matthew Lipman restored a more customary soloist-orchestra relationship in Richard Wernick’s Viola Concerto (“Do not go gentle…”). Lipman’s mellow-toned instrument, and its dialogues with string, wind, brass and percussion groups within the orchestra, projected just fine in the smallish hall.

In keeping with the urgent tone of Dylan Thomas’s famous poem—quoted in full in the score of Wernick’s piece—the soloist barked out a four-note motive right at the start, which morphed and developed quite audibly as the viola raged and withdrew by turns in the restless first movement.

In the second (and last) movement, “…into that good night,” the violist meditated with rich tone and arching phrases to minimal accompaniment, only the occasional stabbing chord and a long, diminuendo heartbeat on a low drum. (Richard Strauss himself was not more explicit about what happens at the end.)  Lipman was eloquent in both agitation and resignation.

Shulamit Ran’s 1990 work Symphony is her only work so far by that title.  How seriously she took the genre and its history is evident in the work’s “virtuosic…use of the orchestra and…command of an advanced contemporary language,” to quote the citation of her well-earned Pulitzer Prize, as well as its “extremes of intense introspection and sweeping dramatic eloquence.” 

The Pulitzer jury’s glowing praise holds up well three decades later even if the Mahlerian aspirations felt a little cramped in the Rose Theater. Still, Botstein and the ASO gave it their best, with a splendid additive crescendo after the initial horn motto and bold disjunct phrases striding out from the cellos to the rest of the large (and yes, percussion-rich) orchestra. Late in the first movement, a polar-bear waltz for trumpet and marimba grew to an explosion of timpani, bass drum and other percussion before a movement-closing reprise of the horn motive.

The middle movement unfolded in a hushed atmosphere amid unusual instrumental combinations that sounded at times like organ registration. Individual instruments took their turns in bird-like dialogue or expressive legato counterpoint, and it appeared composer Ran had developed a serious crush on the drainpipe moan of the bass clarinet.

A fast chatter of repeated notes—easy for the strings to play, a challenge for the winds—did not so much propel the final movement as add a kind of nervous excitement. Chirping nature sounds and a brass-fueled crescendo ushered in a hymn-like theme from the first movement, forte and maestoso in the manner of a Romantic cyclical symphony, before the horn motto and a furiously chattering coda brought this vivid piece to a close.

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