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Bard Conservatory Orchestra at a new plateau

Music review
by Stephen Kaye
Mon May 8th, 2017

Leon Botstein with Bard Conservatory Orchestra. Photo by Douglas Grandgeorge

I have been listening to the Bard Conservatory’s student orchestras since its founding some 12 years ago.  As the concert at the Fisher Center on Sunday afternoon amply demonstrated, it has come a long way, reaching a plateau only marginally less than a fully professional level.  Not only did the orchestra sound good, they generated excitement, drama and showed individual talents. Dr. Leon Botstein led them through a long program of three substantial and difficult pieces.

The first was a mixed jazz and classical piece written by Thurman Barker, a Bard faculty member.  A jazz quintet was joined with the symphony orchestra.  Barker played on a drum set at the center, his son Noah was at the piano; they were joined by jazz players on clarinet and sax, guitar and double bass.  Rhythm was everywhere; jazz solos were interspersed with orchestral responses. The sound was at times Gershwin, strains of Glass, it was mostly mainstream jazz with a nod to an orchestra.  These crossover experiments have been tried before.  This was a valiant try and mostly agreeable.

Karl Amadeus Hartman (1905-63) is a name infrequently seen on concert programs; he wrote a substantial body of music, including eight symphonies.  The Sixth was on the program, and a blockbuster it was. It kept seven percussionists busy.  They were excellent. While a touch lengthy, it was a feast of riches “luxuriously orchestrated” according to the program notes.  “Difficult” in the words of one of my colleagues, it nonetheless came off as a strong and coherent work, and a challenge for the students.  We heard a grab-bag of orchestral sounds, moods, and tonalities.  But what I noticed in this and the following piece, each section could be heard as a unit.  Each section had its own voice.  Conductor Botstein melded them together.  There were strong performances on every instrumental group and by several principals.

The final piece was Symphony No 2 by Josef Suk, the Asrael Symphony (1905). The program notes said Suk was Dvorak’s favorite pupil.  This second symphony reflects not just the death of his mentor, but of his wife, so it is infused with morbidity.  But it was not at all morbid in the hands of this youthful orchestra. There were light and delightful sections. Frequent short solos gave every section a spotlighted moment.  While it could have been cut, it was another showpiece that won the audience’s approval.  Particularly noteworthy were solos by Alex Van der Veen as first violinist, Emily Munstredt, principal cellist, and Gabrielle Hartman, bassoonist.  There were, of course, strong overtones of Dvorak, but also of Tchaikovsky and probably lots of others, including Mahler.

What this program did was pose challenges for the student musicians.  The students more than met those challenges. They also provided a devoted audience with an afternoon of excellent music.