Review of the American Symphony Orchestra — superb soloists in a mixed evening
To paraphrase a popular quote, is arguing over music like dancing over architecture? Because an American Symphony Orchestra concert is almost invariably a dispute over the music presented by conductor and music director (and president of Bard College) Leon Botstein. And, as if to dance to architecture, some angles line up beautifully while others are mismeasured.
For Sunday night’s American Masters program, the argument was strange: three works from 1986 to 1998 and a world premiere that, in Botstein’s words, reflect “how music . . . has changed in recent decades. But the concertos of Melinda Wagner and Richard Wernick, that of Shulamit Ran Symphonyand the novel by Roberto Sierra Fiction could in no way even approach this task. From one piece to academic tonal modernism, the program overlooked so much important music from the past 30 years, as if Bang on a Can had never happened.
That still left a substantial concert with some excellent soloists. For Wagner’s Concerto for Flute, Strings and Percussion, it was flautist Tara O’Connor. Matthew Lipman performed Wernick’s Viola Concerto and Sierra’s piece was written for electric violinist Tracy Silverman. Each gave superb performances, although not all were sufficiently supported by Botstein.
As the conductor can limit his own point of view, his technique has shortcomings. His conducting has few nuances and modest dynamism, and he seems incapable of handling the details of complex rhythms. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the ASO is playing badly, but some pieces seem better prepared than others.
That was the problem with Wagner’s concerto. As O’Connor played with great agility and expressive energy to complement her liquid gold tone, the orchestra sounded stiff behind her, lacking in spring and sensitivity, as if each were so focused on their own parts that he couldn’t get along. other. Wagner’s leaping harmonies and intriguing colors promise much more than has been heard here.
Fiction and the Viola Concerto were quite different. Silverman can be heard on John Adams The Dharma in Big Sur and masters the technical possibilities of the six-string electric violin; he can shred like a rock guitarist in front of an orchestra. Fiction was inspired by the stories of Jorge Luis Borges and, like these, the music was a combination of dazzling and mysterious, with excellent orchestral playing. Silverman actually shredded.
Wernick’s concerto is in two movements according to Dylan Thomas: “Do not go soft. . . ” and ” . . . in this good night”. It has a repeated five-note phrase above a collection of detailed and precise sound daubs. Lipman was outstanding, with a velvety sound, filling every sentence with meaning. It was a masterful performance.
ASO gigs tend to be long, and after nearly two hours, Botstein’s hammer-like rendition of Ran Symphony was overwhelming. The orchestra seemed engaged but awkward, though the final movement had real energy, with the players anticipating every note to come.