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Cathedral of Sound

Music review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Sun Sep 25th, 2016

The Orchestra Now with Leon Botstein

The Orchestra Now concert at Sosnoff Theater was well-rehearsed in their opening concert for this season with Leon Botstein at the helm. They began with Aaron Copland’s witty and delightful Clarinet Concerto wonderfully performed by Viktor Toth on clarinet. Toth brought out a golden high tone with fast fingering. This delightful piece had been commissioned by Benny Goodman with a two year exclusive on performances.

Copland exuberantly composed the intriguingly languid first part in ¾ time while travelling in Latin America, yet he felt blocked on the second part, and put the composition aside in favor of doing the film score for John Steinbeck’s The Red Pony. Copland finally finished the concerto the following year after conducting at Tanglewood in 1948. While Copland could not play a single note on the clarinet, he worked closely with Goodman once he had a draft. This concerto at nearly seventeen minutes remains a hoot. The second part is a jazzy rondo that Toth nailed with gusto.

Anton Bruckner’s long Fifth Symphony, an hour longer than the Copland, comprised the second half of the concert. While many acclaim Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony his great work, nearly as many give the laurel to the Fifth. It’s amazing to me that Bruckner never heard his “Fantastic” symphony performed. Bruckner’s popular breakthrough did not occur until his Seventh Symphony. By the time his Fifth was performed, he was on his death bed, yet here we are thousands of miles from Germany all these years later listening to it.

Viktor Toth

Commentators have called this Bruckner’s great organ piece and the brass loves this piece as they have the opportunity of nearly drowning out the strings, reducing them at times to supporting background. And that horn section did let loose. In the last fugal movement Bruckner competes with the ghost of Bach and the orchestration is a vaulting pyramid of sound. Many have compared the work to an enormous cathedral. The last movement supplies a crowning spire that does something special to the neurons in the brain. This remains one of the great musical highs and I’m happy to report that the orchestra appeared to even excel Botstein’s highest hopes.   

Bard College has announced that 2017 Summerscape will focus on Chopin and His World, running August 11-13 and 18-20. One of its highlights will be a production of Antonín Dvořák’s 1882 opera Dimitrÿ about intrigue between Poles and Russians. The hero becomes a martyr while attempting to negotiate peace. Perhaps there will be contemporary resonance. Just as Dimitrÿ was one of Dvořák’s most popular works, the focus on Chopin may yet prove to be one of the most popular Summerscape themes.