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All-Stravinsky Program at Bard

Music review
by Antonia Shoumatoff
Sun Apr 15th, 2018

Leon Botstein and the TÖN Orchestra

An all-Stravinsky Program was performed by Bard’s TÖN Orchestra, conducted by Leon Botstein at Sosnoff Theater.

The Rite of Spring, the main piece that the audience was restlessly waiting for, was delightfully introduced by bassoon player, Adam Romey, who explained how the piece had changed his career trajectory.  After hearing the piece, he determined to become a classical musician and bassoon player, leaving his position in the world of garage bands and rock gigs.

Stravinsky’s composition broke the barriers of musical language in his day, replacing academic protocol that requires that one note must follow another in harmonic sequence, thus causing a riot during its 1913 premiere in Paris.  

The piece initially simulates the slow unfolding of nature in Spring—with intimations of buds, insects, birds and animals emerging from sleep intertwined with pre-Christian Slavic folk themes delicately moving from bassoons to flutes, to strings, horns and drums into a full cacophony of wild excitement. It is only at the moment of hearing the seemingly unrestrained wall of sound (with atonal elements derived from Russian folk music) that a modern audience can understand why an audience in 1913 found the composition so disturbing, along with the strange earth-centered choreography by Nijinsky with stomping feet and hunched shoulders.  Some women screamed during the original premiere, “Docteur, docteur!” while men waved their canes and took out handkerchiefs; lights had to be turned on and police summoned as the audience’s screaming contributed to the cacophony of the music.

Over a hundred years later, this composition sounds less shocking, particularly when performed and conducted so intricately, with dazzling attention to individual instruments culminating into a full orchestral masterpiece.  Much of the audience sat on the edges of their seats as percussion pounded. Seiji Ozawa once observed that this was the most difficult orchestral work to conduct.

The solo instruments that prevailed were bassoons, with Carl Gardner as principal along with oboes and contrabassoon. Thomas Wible on alto flute held a strange and distinctive trill. The contrast with the ominous sounding basses culminated in heightened strings, clarinet, horns and trumpet. The large sound created by the complex rhythms allowed each instrument to somehow stand out with color and confidence amidst the ensemble.  Stravinsky was a master of such detail. This performance so mesmerized the audience that they all rose to their feet and clapped in unison as Dr. Botstein took a perfunctory bow for his masterful conducting but repeatedly pointed to each instrumental section to stand and take their well-deserved bow with loud applause from the audience.

It was then that one understood why this was the piece that ushered a wave of modernism, both in classical composition and choreography—it was not just a musical aberration but a revolution in aesthetics.

The evening had opened with three other Stravinsky compositions, rarely heard. The Funeral Song, a doleful requiem for Stravinsky’s mentor, Rimsky-Korsakov with ominous tones on drums, strings and flute. 

The Bard Chorus, comprised of 48 singers, performed in the two other pieces: Stravinsky’s Requiem Canticles, composed four years before his death and performed during his funeral, a piece he called his “pocket requiem.” The singing, which was in Latin, had marvelous moments with oboe, bassoon and voice in combination.  Two soloists were remarkable. Although also dissonant and doleful, it ends in an uplifting high with bell and xylophone.

The Symphony of Psalms (1948), which Stravinsky intended to be objective rather than emotional, was written after a serious illness for the 50th Anniversary of the Boston Symphony Orchestra; it was commissioned by Serge Koussevitzky, who was known to be an ardent proponent of modern music.

The piece in three movements has some monumental moments of big sound with two concert grand pianos, a rousing choral section, originally designed to be sung by children. The concluding optimism reflects Stravinsky’s re-affirmation of religious faith: the finale resonates with a steady drum beat and the words, “Let everything that breathes praise the Lord.”