Review: An orchestra offers a new take on musical history
Have mercy on the 19th-century American composer, struggling in Beethoven’s shadow in search of a local sound, only to be eclipsed by another European: Antonin Dvorak, whose “New World” Symphony is performed far more often than anything from the New World that came before it.
Visiting the United States in the 1890s, Dvorak prophesied a future of American classical music based on black and native melodies. To some extent this came about in the 20th century, but orchestras tended to neglect composers of color in favor of white, male composers – some of whom would end up being seen as national heroes, while their lesser-known compatriots. relied on (and continue to rely on) passionate champions.
And Europeans still haunted concert programming – a product, historian Joseph Horowitz argued, of a cultural shift in American classical music from a focus on composers to performers which, fueled by the rise of radio and recordings, has calcified the repertoire of our greatest cultural establishments.
I am reductive, but the great truth is that the myopic approach to most orchestral programming today – Eurocentric, with living composers rarely in the same place as a Beethoven or a Mahler – has nothing to do with it. new.
Then there are artists like Leon Botstein, an indispensable advocate for the unfairly ignored, who brought his ensemble The orchestra now at Carnegie Hall Thursday for an evening of works that, while spanning a range of nearly 150 years, felt as fresh as a batch of premieres.
Botstein belongs to a class of conductors and artistic directors – including Horowitz, as well as Gil Rose of the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, Ashleigh Gordon and Anthony R. Green of Castle of our skins, and more – which bring an infinitely curious and almost archaeological spirit to their programming. They operate on such a small scale that they can hardly turn the tide of American classical music history; but every concert, every recording is an essential step in a better direction.
On Thursday Botstein and The Orchestra Now, a group of capable and playful young musicians, took the last of those steps with Julia Perry’s “Stabat Mater”, written in 1951, at the start of this composer’s short life; Scott Wheeler’s new violin concerto, “Birds of America,” starring Gil Shaham; and George Frederick Bristow’s Fourth Symphony, “Arcadian,” from 1872.
Perry’s work, an episodic staging of the classical Latin text that has inspired composers for centuries, seems to rise from the depths, slowly awakening to the gritty cello sounds that eventually give way to the brilliance of a solo violin and at the singer’s entrance: here, the mezzo-soprano Briana Hunter, who has navigated the turns and the surprising dives of her role with a soft ease and full of character.
The score, like many American works from the mid-twentieth century, strikes a balance between dissonance and tonality. With a brief runtime and modest scale, it is nonetheless dense, with thick textures emerging from its string ensemble and a touching ambivalence in the final section of instrumental darkness and vocal ecstasy.
Wheeler’s amiable concerto, which the orchestra created last weekend at the Fisher Center at Bard College, has elements of timelessness – its lyricism resembles that of Barber and Korngold’s famous violin concertos – but also postmodernism, with excerpts from classics like “The Four Seasons” by Vivaldi.
Despite the avian title, Wheeler does not mimic birdsong like Messiaen did, but draws inspiration from distinct voice calls, with short, repeated phrases attached to specific instruments – like the whistle of a piccolo and a flute that open the room.
Shaham, one of our sunniest violinists, entered accordingly with a melody sung on his highest string, and brought abundant warmth throughout. But he was also of a striking virtuosity in delicate passages à la Sarasate of lyrical double plays and pizzicato of the left hand. In the finale, he engaged in a Simon Says musical, slapping the back of his instrument and asking second violins to do the same, then setting up violas col legno tapping and high-pitched bird calls. to the first violins. At the end, the winds have joined together to conjure up a wonderfully bustling aviary.
Without an intermission, Botstein continued with Bristow’s Muscular Symphony, one of those works that we hear more than we actually hear. But at its inception, in the midst of 19th-century debates about the direction of American classical music – documented, with an analysis of the “Arcadian,” in musicologist Douglas W. Shadle’s revealing 2015 book “Orchestrating the Nation “- she appreciated the rare success of repeat programming.
And Thursday, you might hear why. With the grandeur of late Romanticism and American inspiration, the “Arcadian”, played at Carnegie in a new edition by Kyle Gann, traces an imaginary journey to the west with a changing musical landscape; a serene break that evokes community entertainment with a quote from Tallis’ “Evening Hymn”; an “Indian War Dance” of a disturbing and chauvinistic naivety which is more of a macabre European dance; and a festive celebration on arrival.
As a document of history, it is an incarnation, ripe for questioning, of the sins of Manifest Destiny. But as music, Bristow’s score holds up alongside European romanticism while seamlessly aiming for a new, more distinct path. He was hardly alone in this effort. There was a time when New York concert halls resounded with 19th-century American symphonies. It is time for them to start over.
The orchestra now
Performed Thursday at Carnegie Hall, Manhattan.