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Remarkable facility: Bard Music Festival conductor Leon Botstein.

Czech and Double Czech
By B.A. Nilsson

American Symphony Orchestra
Bard Music Festival, Aug. 17

The American Symphony Orchestra is an ensemble of top New York City-based freelancers. Unlike its big-name brethren, it doesn’t have the luxury of constant rehearsal and performance, so the skill of these players is all the more tested with each performance. Add to that the fact that music director Leon Botstein (who is also the president of Bard College) spends little time in the realm of basic repertory, and you have to admire the facility with which this group tears into a work like Janácek’s Glagolitic Mass, the final piece of the two-week Janácek festival held at Bard College, much of it in the new Richard B. Fisher Performing Arts Center.

The Mass is a weighty work, its text an antique Slavonic dialect that offered the composer even more of a challenge in his ongoing experiments with the relationship between music and speech. Sunday afternoon’s concert, in the new and acoustically lively Sosnoff Theater, crowded the stage with the orchestra, the New York Virtuoso Singers, and soloists Turid Karlsen (soprano), Susan Platts (mezzo), Michael Hendrick (tenor) and Arthur Woodley (bass-baritone).

The unsettled feeling of the Agnus Dei was characteristic of the work as a whole, but here Janácek gave quick sketches of varying texture, with a brief sequence for the soloists, an a cappella moment for the chorus, then an intricate finish with the orchestra. But that’s not the end of the work: There’s an organ solo, nicely rendered by Kent Tritle on an instrument that has snazzy electronics but falls well short of the majestic sound of a true pipe organ, and then an orchestra finish that sounds like a dance, almost as if the churchgoing villagers were now released from the sanctuary and having a burst of fun.

The Mass was foreshadowed in the concert’s first half by two shorter Janácek works, first a setting for tenor, chorus and orchestra of The Carták Inn on Solán Mountain that showcased Hendrick’s amazing sonority, and then Hospodine! (Lord, Have Mercy), a work for soloists and orchestra that featured an antique sonority over Janácek’s characteristic harmonies.

Contrasting that was Szymanowski’s Stabat Mater, Op. 53, another big work for soloists (but no tenor), chorus and orchestra, each section putting different combinations of soloists and chorus against a varying range of orchestral texture. Woodley’s work in the penultimate section was an excellent display both of his vocal skill and the composer’s polyrhythmic textures, climaxing in a stirring musical portrait of Judgment Day.

Earlier in the day, a chamber concert on the other side of campus put Janácek’s music in the context of younger composers, fixing our hero very much in an avant garde to which his age wouldn’t seem to entitle him. Although it was great to hear string quartets by Hindemith (no. 4) and Bartók (no. 3), especially as played by the skillful Bard Festival Quartet, the ear-opening gems were Stravinsky’s Octet for winds and brass and Janácek’s Capriccio for piano and brass (with a flute). Anton Nel played the difficult one-handed piano part, and the other players, drawn from the symphony’s ranks, proved themselves able soloists.

That concert opened with Szymanowski’s Impressionist-drenched Myths, Op. 30, played (from memory!) by violinist Timothy Fain, who was faultless, and virtuoso pianist Anna Polonsky.

Real-Time Virtuosity

The Philadelphia Orchestra
Saratoga Performing Arts Center, Aug. 14

Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3, the most popular of his five, is an elusive demon. That’s part of its appeal. A wistful clarinet figure is soon blown away by a nervous crescendo of strings, and then the piano enters with a lopsided theme it declares almost in spite of the orchestra. Soon they’re partners, but each time the ensemble seems to be in accord the piano throws another antic curveball.

Meat and potatoes for pianist Martha Argerich, who has made this a trademark piece and who’s at her best when navigating its tricky passagework. Performing with the Philadelphia Orchestra and conductor Charles Dutoit at SPAC last week, she gave the kind of virtuosic performance all too rare in these days of playing it safe, and reaffirmed the affinity she and Dutoit have enjoyed when essaying works like this one.

You can hear them perform this piece on a recent CD that also includes more Prokofiev and Bartók, but it’s only a souvenir—the real excitement is in the real-time enjoyment of this work. For example, as the orchestra churns through the development section of the first movement, there’s a hypnotic moment as the piano leads into the recapitulation. It seems spontaneous, a crazy improvisation away from the theme—and then the familiar opening piano licks sound again with an added sense of triumph.

During the slow march of the second movement, the familiar piano runs and crashing chords also had that made-up-on-the-moment sound, yet Argerich also informed the more lyric moments with astonishing lushness. By the finale, itself a test of endurance, she once again had made this piece her own.

And what to follow it with? Shostakovich’s mighty Symphony No. 5 was a good choice, a popular work with sardonic overtones written in 1937 to appease an angry Soviet government. But it’s not a pro-anything work, and the first thing it sweeps away is the legacy of Beethoven’s Ninth, turning the intervals that open that work into a taunt that swells and softens.

Dutoit obviously enjoys these big Russian works—he did a glorious job with Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony a few seasons ago—and he tugged at the players for exciting turns in the dynamics and a glorious sense of fun.

We can count on the Philadelphia Orchestra to be problem free; the strings are a glory, the brass sound like a mighty organ. All aspects of the orchestra get to shine in this work, and the woodwind players also showed not only their skills individually and as a section, but also in matching dynamics with the other sections.

The witty scherzo was characterized by concertmaster David Kim’s joyous solo work, and the trenchant third movement was as gut-wrenching as I’ve ever heard it. Dutoit also didn’t succumb to the usual habit of speeding through the finale to make it exciting. By following the conductor’s tempo markings, he found even more excitement in the piece.

The program opened with Mussorgsky’s Khovanchina prelude, a charming piece doomed to be just what it has become: a throwaway opening to an all-Russian program.

—B.A. Nilsson

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