Kauder symphony proves a compelling rediscovery in Orchestra Now program

Fri Nov 04, 2022 at 2:42 pm
Leon Botstein conducted The Orchestra Now Thursday night at Carnegie Hall. Photo: David DeNee

We should all be so lucky as to have a [Your Name Here] Society to keep our works before the public after we’re gone.

Thanks to the efforts of the Hugo Kauder Society, this Moravian-born, Vienna-based composer (1888-1972) made a splash in Carnegie Hall Thursday night, fifty years after his death. The New York City premiere of his Symphony No. 1, colorfully performed by The Orchestra Now under Leon Botstein, was the standout piece of “The Lost Generation,” a program revisiting some leading figures from the era of Schoenberg and Berg.

What was “lost” of Walter Braunfels (1882-1954) and Hans Erich Apostel (1901-1972) was careers disrupted by Nazi proscriptions of “degenerate music”—not, fortunately, lives lost in the death camps, as tragically happened to other composers whose music is being revived these days.

Their more benign fate was to live on, working and teaching in Europe and the USA, surrounded by students and family who would preserve their memory and manuscripts (and maybe even found a “society”). The sad fact is, every generation gets “lost” eventually, except for a few big names.

One can only imagine the time, devotion, and luck required to produce usable performing parts for even so prominent a piece as Kauder’s symphony, which earned him the City of Vienna Prize for composition in 1928. Fortunately, family members took good care of the composer’s papers, so drafts, a score, and even performing parts from the 1924 premiere survived.

The work of editing and digitizing this material for performance fell to the Kauder Society’s manager, the composer and educator Karl Warner, whose handiwork sounded excellent in the hands of the young musicians Thursday night. The ensemble, which styles itself TŌN, is a graduate program of Bard College (where Botstein is president), in which aspiring orchestral players earn credit while giving audience-friendly performances that include spoken remarks on the pieces and opportunities for listeners to chat with the players afterward.

Oboist JJ Silvey even cracked a few jokes in his introduction to the program’s first half, although the audience sounded unsure whether to laugh at a classical concert. Referring to the obscurity of the composers on the program, Silvey said, “I had to ask myself, would I go to a concert like this?  Probably not.” (In his own podium remarks, conductor Botstein expressed pleasant surprise that there were more people in the audience than on the stage.) 

Trumpeter Maggie Tsan-Jung Wei played it straighter, but with infectious enthusiasm, introducing the second half. Eventually, the audience felt uninhibited enough to applaud after every movement. (Botstein just waited them out, then started the next one.)

Kauder’s symphony opened with a crescendo to a burst of brass, and continued with anxious violins over a deep, throbbing bass. The composer’s acquaintance with Brahms and Mahler was evident, the former in taut counterpoint and wind doublings, the latter in expressive extremes of range for low brass and high strings.

The second movement was less a scherzo than a kind of dark, lumbering dance, constantly starting and stopping, with commentary from a snide piccolo here and whooping horns there.

Darkness also reigned for much of the slow movement, with soaring string melodies sometimes struggling to rise above the tuba-and-contrabassoon-heavy foundation. But Kauder and the performers also artfully varied the texture from oboe solo to rich tutti to Mahlerian moments for harp and low strings, constantly refreshing the ear.

The passacaglia finale was surely inspired by the one in Brahms’s Fourth, but Kauder’s chromatic, offbeat theme produced far more spicy and dissonant results.  As the variations tumbled out, Kauder’s scoring, and the players’ execution of it, were unendingly imaginative and transparent. A staccato fugue led to a startling forte brass entrance, and the symphony closed on a sudden, breathtaking cutoff.

Kauder’s splendid symphony—which would certainly repay more performances and interpretations—was preceded Thursday by other works of interest. 

Adolf Busch (1891-1952) can hardly be considered “lost”—the distinguished violinist, founder of the Busch Quartet, father-in-law of Rudolf Serkin and grandfather of Peter Serkin has secured his place in music history. But his 1944 composition Variations on an Original Theme for piano four-hands stayed “within the family” for decades, the two Serkins often playing it privately.

Late in his life, Peter Serkin (1947-2020) had the idea of arranging the ten-minute piece for full orchestra, and that arrangement had its world premiere Thursday. Serkin introduced his grandfather’s gently dissonant theme in low woodwinds, bringing strings in only gradually. Eventually every section of the orchestra got its moment in the spotlight, including (of course) a variation for solo violin, a lively turn for concertmaster Yi-Ting Kuo.

Despite its title, Walter Braunfels’s 1948 Sinfonia brevis was the longest work of the evening, and sounded so. The first movement passed a disjunct, row-like melody among the sections and imaginatively developed it, but all in a thick, horn-heavy scoring that eventually tired the ear. The Adagio, ma non troppo offered a plaintive oboe solo and episodes for brass, but again deep sonorities threatened to engulf all.

The third movement, a lurching waltz featuring a dancing tuba, climbed out of the depths in a more delicate trio. The Moderato finale began with a chromatic theme climbing from the basement to the violins, and dealt thereafter in stark contrasts, forte brass to gently pulsing strings and back. A brass peroration brought this skillful but somewhat monochromatic composition to a close.

In addition to the trumpeter’s remarks, Botstein opened the second half with a brief speech linking present-day political divisions with the turbulent times the evening’s composers lived through. They believed in truth and beauty, he said, and struggled to hold onto their heritage, and people today must do the same.

Cue Hans Erich Apostel and his 1949 Variations on a Theme by Haydn—no, not that theme by Haydn, but the Andante from his Symphony No. 103. 

If one’s goal was diversity in a context of heritage, one needed to look no further than these character sketches on a fairly severe minor-key tune from one of the prime old masters. From birdy chirps to cushiony clarinets, from a thin violin scrim to a sharp rat-a-tat punctuation, the scoring was always lively and the instruments never got in each other’s way. The end was big and brassy—until it wasn’t. A single note, pianissimo pizzicato, sufficed.

The Orchestra Now, conducted by Zachary Schwartzman, will perform works by Schumann, Richard Strauss, and Sibelius, 4 p.m. Dec. 11 at Peter Norton Symphony Space. Free admission with RSVP. ton.bard.edu.

2 Responses to “Kauder symphony proves a compelling rediscovery in Orchestra Now program”

  1. Posted Nov 05, 2022 at 6:29 am by David B Levy

    Thank you for shining light on Kauder’s amazing symphony, which merits performance by many more orchestras and gain a wider recognition, so long denied the composer. As a member of the Hugo Kauder Society, I am excited to go forward to bring more of his compositions to light.

  2. Posted Nov 05, 2022 at 3:48 pm by Franklin S

    This is actually very significant. Kauder was an excellent composer and theorist very much overshadowed by modernists.

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