Music review: Musical rebirth at Bard

Published on April 18th, 2014 | by Kevin T. McEneaney

Leon Botstein Conducts

Leon Botstein Conducts.

A weekend in old Vienna?  That’s what the American Symphony Orchestra under the energetic baton of Leon Botstein offered this past weekend at Bard’s Sosnoff Theater. The evening began with waltzes by Johann Strauss: the majestic Emperor Waltz, the somewhat gimmicky Accelerations, and On the Beautiful Blue Danube. These were mood-setting pieces that we have all heard—often played indifferently; it was pleasant to hear an orchestra bring subtlety to these familiar pieces.

Strauss was followed by the 1896 Concerto for Violin in E minor by Moscow-born Georgy Edwardovitch Konius (subsequently a teacher of Scriabin), who appropriated the comic stage name of Jules Conus (1869–1942). (“Jules” means “youthful,” while a “conus” is a venomous sea snail, the adult sting of which can be harmful to humans.) His Russian close friends called him Yuly. While not as difficult as a number of great violin concertos, Conus’s concerto remains a fascinating piece to play, about as difficult as Poeme, by Ernest Chausson. The intricacy of Conus’s Parisian-style chromatic solos must be balanced with a larger emotional sweep of archetypal epic feeling, a Russian trademark. Bard’s star-student prodigy Zhi Ma, last year’s winner of Bard’s Conservatory Concerto Competition, performed with great finesse, especially in the magnificent long cadenza.

Conus’s concerto was championed by Fritz Kreisler in London but subsequently “owned” so wholly by Jascha Heifetz that other violinists declined to perform or record it. Heifetz’s 1952 vinyl recording remains a collectors’ treasure. Conus’s concerto influenced Samuel Barber, and it remains a staple favorite of many teachers. Nevertheless it is rarely performed in concert today, although Itzhak Perlman has recently put his Stradivarius to the test with it in concert and recording. The marvelous near-dissonant conclusion to the concerto highlights chromatic expressionism, a technical direction that the Second Viennese School of Music (Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern) would more fully exploit.

Botstein stripped Brahms’s Symphony No. 2 in D major of the saccharine sweetness that—like dust—has accrued over time atop the lyrical first movement. The result was a more robust, pastoral interpretation that might have sounded modern yet is, in fact, truer to Brahms himself. The melancholy second movement, an intimate meditation on death, concludes with wise and elegant resignation. The third movement begins with comic evocation of “eternal” city life as it conjures its foibles and illusions, an externality seemingly oblivious of mortality. The passionate and exultant fourth movement pours forth a jubilant determination to live and appreciate each second of life with an overflowing intensity. Here the horns of the American Symphony Orchestra excelled. Brahms composed an effective and admiring parallel to Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony; they both provide any listener with cathartic rebirth.

The older name for the Danube was Ister (Easter), after the pagan fertility goddess of that name, a European version of Astarte, whose iconic symbols were eggs and rabbits. Outside the Sosnoff Theater, the peepers were in full, glorious chorus.

Postscript: On Sunday afternoon the Faculty-Student Conservatory presented two performances at the László Z. Bitó ’60 Conservatory Building. The first piece, by the prolific Jean Françaix, was the Quintet for flute, oboe, clarinet, horn, and bassoon, No. 1 (1948), a wayward comic sketch in the vein of 1930s French cabaret music. It was in places extremely funny and quite original. Françaix rode his bicycle in a league of his own. Memorable for its eccentric wit, Tempo di Marcia Francese, the last of the four movements, made me think of Molly Bloom’s soliloquy in James Joyce’s Ulysses. On French horn Szilárd Molnár blew with authority.

After a brief intermission, Dr.  Robert Martin, on cello, confidently led his students in Chausson’s Concert, Op. 21. This composition possessed four movements with unusually elegant and beautiful conclusions. Professor Laurie Smukler on first violin displayed subtle nuance and sensitive tone. The six-instrument ensemble melded together in perfect unison for the third movement: somber, it evoked an unwilling welling of tears in my eyes. The animated synergy of the concluding movement left the audience experiencing an unexpected rejuvenation.


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