facility: Bard Music Festival conductor Leon Botstein.
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
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
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.
The Philadelphia Orchestra
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
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.