Skip to content Skip to navigation

Botstein waves his magic wand

Music review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Sun Nov 6th, 2016

Leon Botstein and members of The Bard Conservatory Orchestra

The Bard Conservatory Orchestra provided a program with historical innuendo that paralleled contemporary politics. But it was, of course, about the music. Beethoven’s Leonora Overture, No. 2. opened the concert. Here was the heroic portrait of a woman defying the political system and with a little luck (deus ex machina style) and triumphs. As an opera overture (draft for Fidelio), this was a dramatic if somewhat one-dimensional work by the legendary genius. Under Leon Botstein’s baton, the orchestra was unified, tight, sounding like a single instrument.

Béla Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, composed at Lake Saranac during the summer of 1943, followed. On the way to the concert I listened to a recording directed by Lenny Bernstein and decided it was too showy, straining for explosive effect. Botstein conjured more delicate nuance in this symphonic piece that remains an eternal delight. Despite its dense complexity and disagreement about the music’s meaning, it remains Bartók’s most popular composition. I could listen to it at least once a month. (I disagree thoroughly with the narcissistic interpretation of Alex Ross in his excellent book The Rest is Noise.)

The piece plays both autobiographical and political. The mysterious first movement appears to start in the womb, climaxing early in his birth, confusing toddlerhood, and climaxing again in puberty. The amusing second movement, the so-called “game of couples” with matching instruments merrily recalls the dating games of early adulthood with a light patter from an ominous drum adumbrating unconscious march toward war. The third movement is all war, lament, and elegy for the dead, while the fourth movement depicts those disposed of their homeland (like Bartók himself). The final presto movement dramatizes the clash of war with a stunning American bugle call that brings American troops into the war, the movement climaxing with a vision of hopeful victory over Hitler. Botstein produced a thoroughly haunting performance with rich, textured layers of sound that I could feel in my spine. The horns were especially memorable.

The second half of the program demanded different rigors and finesse. Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5, his so-called Hamlet symphony, demands ambivalence—being too sardonic or too assuaging offer degrees of confusion. Much of this quandary resides in tempo and volume. Shostakovich, nearly listed for death camp, had to appear musically reformed: a toning down of dissonance and a return to melodic drama in the name of social realism. He managed to mask his portrait of a bedlam society with some harmonic sugar coating, leaving a personal portrait of the composer as mentally deranged and unstable yet struggling for coherence and conformity—an unlikely achievement that permitted Shostakovich to live while his relatives, friends, and acquaintances disappeared at night. Conducting this piece is a tightrope walk. Botstein managed to dance that tightrope with grace and wit. He conjured degrees of dissonance that were as alarming as attractive, never going too far, and hauling ambiguity back into the “picture” that these gifted students provided with such brilliance and patience.

We are on the eve of when a whimsical and ignorant dictator may rise to fire all government support of music and turn the Oval Office into Comedy Central. If that happens, America might produce its own equivalent of the brilliantly waffling satire of Shostakovich.