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Bard’s Conservatory Orchestra goes atomic

On March 1 Bard College Conservatory stepped off the beaten path to embrace the future, offering two premieres of compositions by students. The program opened with Samuel Barber’s first composition, entitled “First Essay for Orchestra” (1937–1938), which was premiered by Arturo Toscanini. Barber employed the term “essay,” which originally meant “attempt,” as if his short composition was a personal essay in the tradition of Montaigne’s inventive manner of writing. Like Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872–1958) and Aram Khachaturian (1903–1978), Barber had no intention of tossing out the great Romantic tradition; he worked from that tradition, selectively appropriating dissonance and other developments in his aesthetic development.
In “A multitude noteless of numbers” (2014–2015), Adam Zuckerman offered an even more interior meditation than Barber as he painted a series of moods through tonalities. As in the Barber composition, the music remains abstract, but it develops in a more elliptical manner than Barber’s, hinting at infinities yet to be explored while maintaining suspenseful fluidity. As in Barber, the brass section offered dynamic explosions. 
“Retrato,” by Mexican-born Andrés Martinez de Velasco, presented a postmodern portrait of how this child became a musician. Through a Proust-like meditation on childhood, with blurring contours that intimated stages of growth, shimmering melodic resonance conveyed wonder and deep emotion rather than the abstraction found in Barber. Allusions to music heard as a child shifts Martinez more into the camp of Charles Ives, yet Martinez clings to a more Romantic and intimate style than Ives. I was forcefully struck by the dramatic achievement of the piece’s concluding climax with its percussion.
Affirming Toscanini’s precedent of introducing Barber, Leon Botstein brought in Jeffrey Milarsky to conduct this concert. Noted for conducting new material at Juilliard and Columbia University, Milarsky energized Bard’s students to perform above their presumed level. He evoked a mystic magnetism, a wonder to hear.
After the success of his opera “Doctor Atomic”—about J. Robert Oppenheimer and the development of the atomic bomb—John Adams retooled that music as “Doctor Atomic Symphony, for orchestra (2007),” reducing it to three movements. This piece contains the public explosiveness of Barber, yet Adams pushes much further into social conscience than ever Barber dared. The dynamic ascents are far more powerful and manic than anything in Barber’s music. The opening lament of devastation conjures a pathos that invades the heart while moving to public declaration. The frenzied panic following this movement approaches closer to the music of Shostakovich at its most agile and thrilling. The evocation of the Corn God, who gave birth to fertility and the productivity at the heart of civilization, remains hauntingly ironic. The concluding “Trinity” segment made me believe that humankind is not sane. This work expertly employs both interiority and public event with such intense dynamism that the audience is transported to a place beyond belief or wonder, an angst at the heart of a global dread that pulses in the subconscious of all of us.    
Bard students performed with ardent fervor: the brass was both clear and sonorous; violins and cellos played with such unison one could feel them under one’s ribcage; percussion was so expert one could feel them throb in one’s feet; the harp, that most neglected of classical instruments, contributed a sure-touch, ethereal sensitivity. The whole experience radiated the accomplishment of a major orchestra.