Making History at Bard: A premiere by the ASO under Leon BotsteinPublished on March 9th, 2013 | by Kevin T. McEneaney
Leon Botstein, known for motif concerts, took up the baton for the American Symphony Orchestra to present a clarinet concerto by Harold Farberman (a former teacher of his) and Anton Bruckner’s rarely-performed, mischievous Eighth Symphony on February 22 and 23. Of the 66 recordings of this symphony listed at Amazon, only 3CDs present this first version. Bruckner was Adolf Hitler’s second-favorite composer (after Wagner). Bruckner’s symphony of nearly 29 endings is a satiric collage masterpiece that ridicules German conformity, militarism, bureaucracy, rural life, urban life, horse races, the circus, and twenty something other aspects of German culture, including clock-making and Wagner. The fact that young Adolf was daydreaming of music rather than tank formations, bombing patterns, and extermination ovens is merely one of history’s horrible ironies. The autodidact “genius” hadn’t a clue as to what Bruckner was up to, but Hitler was aware that Bruckner employed German folk tunes, and that was as far as his appreciation went in his late teens when he conceived of mobile orchestras, instead of mobile V2 rockets.
Botstein ably sustained the suspense, tension, and absurdity of Bruckner. Just when you think Bruckner has become a tedious or bombastic bore, he makes a left turn and puts you at the edge of a cliff: you find yourself wondering how you nearly came to fall off your seat when the language of divine horns, in all its forceful lyrical dissonance, exploded your cranium. Bruckner was Beethoven’s agonistic disciple: pitting rural against urban, violins against horns, violins against each other—music as tense drama. It was all fantastic, funny, and cathartic.
In a more serious vein, Harold Farberman’s Triple Concerto for Clarinet offered a larger statement about musical history. The first movement began with nostalgic reverie of nineteenth century music, then energetically swung into American jazz, evoking Latin swing, the big bands of Woody Herman and Count Basie, and the fifth dimension of 5/5 time opened by the late Dave Brubeck. The third movement provided klezmer-style music with its astonishing lament commemorating the holocaust. Achieving a crescendo of earned pathos, Farberman segued (how, I don’t know—it sounded like magic to me) into a hopeful coda of survival with a Bulgarian folk tune that achieved a marvelous climax. Throughout this moving collage, Renata Rakova blew her clarinet with tenderness, rage, and unexpected joy. I’d swear she possessed three lungs. Just as few orchestras could pull-off the subtlety and thunder of Bruckner’s dynamic contrasts, one would be hard put to find a clarinet player to fill her shoes.
While Manhattan venues traditionally feature accomplished, noted performers, Bard strives to make musical history. Farberman’s Triple Concerto was a world premier. Can Botstein find other venues for Farberman’s wonderful concerto, so that more people can enjoy it?