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Chasing Away Melancholy at Bard

Music review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Sun Mar 12th, 2017

Leon Botstein opened the Bard College Conservatory concert on Sunday with some bad news: faculty clarinetist Laura Flax had passed away from cancer; her last act was to have her children come to the hospital and sing a song with her. Botstein then briefly spoke eloquently of the plight of Syrian refugee students and how students were organizing to help them.

Opening the concert was the world premiere of Paloma, composed by Bard student Obadiah Wright (b. 1994). Attempting to forget his silly cartoon program notes, I discovered that Wright has a formidable talent for orchestration. The short piece began with a dramatic prolog. A well-written trombone lead endowed the music with tension and attractive mystery. A multitude of instruments, including a harp, chimed in to provide shading and depth of color. There was enough in this short piece to want more. Wright is definitely a talent to be watched with high expectations.

Robert Schumann’s Cello Concerto in A minor, op. 129 with Peter Wiley did not begin as smoothly as I had hoped, but by the second movement Wiley had intently dug into the melancholy lyricism of Schumann as he visibly responded to the more hopeful contrast in the student orchestra, especially the excellent violins. Wiley’s phrasing of the elegiac second movement romanza conjured pathos. Zongheng Zhang on first violin wrapped an admirable thread around Wiley’s cello. The more rhythmic scherzo was gossamer and graceful. The finale, beginning with a forceful march, recalled the principal theme of the first movement in A major, accompanied with a dancing subtheme conjured with confidence. The concluding coda-reversal bloomed with a warm scent of spring and Wiley—as well as the unified orchestra—emphatically arrived at an agreeably joyous resolution, a well-earned and satisfying conclusion set against the struggle of previous travail. This happy ending demanded two bows from an enthusiastic audience.

Last night I attended and reviewed at Bardavon a concert that included Tchaikovsky’s Symphony no. 4 in F minor. While it might appear awkward to review the same piece of music for two days in a row, that would not be considered a burden for any music reviewer. Who could not listen to that symphony every week? In the opening movement the horns and tympani deserve a note of special appreciation in encasing the energy of the orchestra. The second movement’s exhausting and haunting melancholy appears to arrive at hopeful reversal yet the final notes seem to record that flicker of optimism as a fickle, false spring, which was so delicately coaxed by the diminuendo of subtle strings—that was hair-raising.

The capricious impressionism of the third movement achieves enchanting confusion. It seems that the trinity of considerations at hand in this symphony—the boasting, urban imperial state; bucolic peasants and landscape; and displaced solo artist—only demand questions of each other amid recurring and unresolved string pizzicato set against stately horns and forested woodwinds. This trinity, more forcefully foregrounded, becomes the obsession of the fourth movement’s majestic melody. In the delightfully delirious conclusion, the painter of notes appears to achieve happy solace from the pastoral landscape, which permits the isolated artist to accept life as it is, especially the cheerful fatalism of simplicity, as a landscape of Spring-hope defeats all skepticism. This vigorous reversal remains an exuberant experience in the hands of a good conductor and enthusiastic orchestra. I have heard this symphony played before at Bard, yet I was slightly critical of pacing in the direction, but Botstein smoothly guided receptive students to play at a remarkably impressive level at Sosnoff Theater.

I’d be willing to hear them play this same program again tomorrow!