Choppers jazz up ASO’s Roaring Twenties concert in Bryant Park

Fri Sep 08, 2023 at 2:02 pm
George Antheil’s Jazz Symphony was performed by the American Symphony Orchestra Thursday night in Bryant Park.

Jazz-Age America was fascinated with aviation, so there was something oddly appropriate about the helicopter obbligato that intruded on George Antheil’s A Jazz Symphony as it opened the American Symphony Orchestra’s concert Thursday night in Bryant Park.

Peppy syncopations by the composer of Ballet Mécanique were accompanied for a minute or two by an actual mechanism hovering directly overhead. The airborne visitor was less welcome when it returned later during a tender oboe solo in Aaron Copland’s Music for the Theatre.

For the most part, however, conductor Leon Botstein was able to take rapt listeners on a musical tour of 1920s America with few distractions other than the occasional siren on 42nd Street and, near my seat, a chatty gaggle of wine-sipping, selfie-snapping young ladies.

Botstein, who is also president of Bard College and known for highly curated concert programs, introduced each of the five short selections with brief remarks on the composer’s life and musical style. Perhaps not wanting listeners’ noses buried in their phones during the performance, he omitted mentioning Sebastian Danila’s informative and gracefully written program notes, which were available on the orchestra’s website.

Trenton-born, Paris-based Antheil, the self-styled “bad boy of music,” eagerly embraced the blue notes and twerks of jazz as he and other artists rushed into the vacuum created by the overthrow of Western high culture in World War I. A barrelhouse piano part, vibrantly delivered on Thursday by Christopher Oldfather, propelled this 1925 one-movement piece through south-of-the-border rhythms and ragtime, broadening now and then in a songful allargando. (The orchestra performed the composer’s tightened-up 1955 revision of the piece.)

In sound and form, Antheil’s piece seemed less a “symphony” than a dance-band medley, in the spirit of Paul Whiteman’s historic “experiment in modern music” of around the same time, where Rhapsody in Blue made its bow. The orchestra of versatile New York freelancers had no problem making this sassy music pop and sizzle.

Happily the helicopter had departed when the pianissimo throb of Ruth Crawford’s Music for Small Orchestra stole in under a repeated F in the piano. Composing in Chicago in 1926—before her marriage to musicologist Charles Seeger and her adoption of a tightly organized composing idiom—Crawford was unlikely to have heard music by Charles Ives, and yet produced here the same kind of dissonant atmospherics with which Ives depicted “The Housatonic at Stockbridge.”

The unusual 10-player ensemble of violins, cellos, winds and piano—akin to the chamber version of Appalachian Spring—shifted gears deftly into the scherzo-like second movement, dancing and chortling “in roguish humor,” as the composer marked it. It was hard to believe this attractive music lay unperformed until 1969, 16 years after the composer’s death at 52.

Copland’s Music for the Theatre, composed in 1925, suffered no such neglect—conductor Serge Koussevitzky served it, still hot and bubbling, in Boston’s Symphony Hall that November. It was the 25-year-old composer’s first hop on the jazz bandwagon, meant to evoke not Shakespeare or Ibsen but the pit band at a popular entertainment.

The piece’s Prologue began with a spiky trumpet call and a dissonant answer from the orchestra, and it seemed Copland the Paris-trained young modernist was in the driver’s seat. But what was with those long, spacious low chords, so lovingly bowed by the ASO strings, and that plaintive oboe melody? Appalachia seemed not so far away after all.

The Dance featured a boisterous bassoon and a klezmer clarinet over chattering winds and xylophone. The contrasting Interlude, with its tender solos for oboe, clarinet and violin over gently rocking strings, seemed happy to escape from Symphony Hall to a grassy sward on a summer night. (Kudos to the uncredited sound engineer for sensitively elevating the solos, especially concertmaster Cyrus Beroukhim’s violin.)

The Burlesque started with a fortissimo shout, then charged ahead in a tumble of shifting tempos and rhythms. Although Roy Harris called it “whorehouse music,” Thursday’s snappy performance reminded one more of the sad-clown-naughty-clown moods of Petrushka. The Epilogue closed this lively piece in unexpectedly reflective fashion, reminiscing over the work’s quieter moments—another stance that would come to be known as “Coplandesque.”

Conductor Botstein warned the audience of a complete shift of gears for Florence Price’s Andante moderato for String Orchestra. 

Perhaps wishing the music to speak for itself without political overtones, Botstein omitted any mention of Price’s race in his introduction, citing instead her admiration for Dvořák and studies with George Chadwick in her quest to give the Romantic symphonic idiom an authentically American sound. (He also gave the ASO snaps for performing a Price symphony as early as the 1990s.)

Like Barber’s famous Adagio, Price’s Andante is a scaled-up movement from a string quartet, and it thrived in that mode Thursday night, as rich swells of string sound in full vibrato rolled out over the park. In the piece’s outer sections, a spiritual-style pentatonic melody was lushly harmonized, while capricious, Dvořákian tempo shifts turned the lively middle section into a sort of Afro-dumka.

Although he was a generation older than the other composers on the program, and (like Ives) a successful businessman, lifelong Chicagoan John Alden Carpenter was as fascinated as any of them with American popular culture, particularly newspapers and comic strips. His 1921 “ballet pantomime” Krazy Kat briefly relates an encounter of the title character with its nemesis, Ignatz Mouse. 

Although Krazy’s fate is less tragic than Petrushka’s—the ever-hopeful cat will return to be outwitted again in tomorrow’s strip—melodrama and violence abounded Thursday night amid crisp scoring for piano, harp and muted trumpet, or for alto sax and keening woodwinds.

If this music wasn’t quite as madcap as Carl Stalling’s scores for Bugs Bunny and Porky Pig, it still managed an eventful mélange of heel-clicking Spanish jota, suave foxtrot, and nostalgic ballad, all expertly managed by Botstein and his players.

And as the helicopter swung in for one last encore, one imagined that diabolical mouse at the controls, ready to frustrate the best-laid plans of cats and men.

A free repeat performance of this program, 3 p.m. Sunday at Kupferberg Center for the Arts, Queens College/CUNY, is indicated as sold out, but a waiting list will be formed at the door. 

A five-piece chamber ensemble of ASO musicians, with oboist Toyin Spellman-Diaz, will perform America UNBOUND by Javier Diaz,5:30 p.m. Sept. 18 and 25 in Bryant Park.

Leave a Comment


 Subscribe via RSS