While Wednesday night’s temperature was near record low, Bard College’s The Orchestra Now under the baton of Leon Botstein produced a warm, tight sound at Sosnoff Theater for those willing to brave the chill. Arthur Honegger’s Rugby led the bill. Premiered in France in 1929 as a half-time entertainment for a rugby match between France and England, this tone poem manages to be both realistic and absurd, hence its entertainment.
As a sport rugby is played in the shadows of the United States sporting scene. As a sport there are two parts to the game, or at least there was once two parts: the game on the field and the entertainment afterward in the pub. The losing team paid the bill for both teams. Each team would have two or three players who were adept at improvising folk songs about the game just played. If you lost on the field, then you had a chance to win at song. These songs would recount bungled plays, mistakes, failed strategies, heroic breakthroughs, sprints, goals, broken scrum lines. Each team singer eulogized one’s players and mocked the other team as a dozen pints went down the hatch. The bus would haul them home.
Double basses and cellos dramatized the heave-ho inch by inch scrum, while violins and violas described the passing arcs of balls. Small sections of the orchestra could pass on tunes. This rather untypical work resembled a Dada experiment: the music itself was inventively quirky, but as a parody exercise it could only be lost on the audience. But since rugby players were and are more culturally sophisticated than their peers in comparative sports, the grimy players might get the jokes in the score. This was as amusing as it was frivolous, light fare for the launch. Mathew Ross on piccolo was fabulous and Ian Striedter on trombone was thrilling.
Othmar Schoeck’s Buried Alive (1927) featured baritone Michael Nagy. In nineteenth century literature the buried alive theme was quite popular due to a lack of knowledge of comas. It was a great Gothic theme living long after Gothic died. I had rather naively thought that Edgar Allan Poe had put the nail in the coffin of this nightmarish obsession with his clever parody of it in his 1846 “The Cask of Amontillado.” This offered a showcase for Nagy who was impressive, eloquent, and flawless in his delivery of this long lieder, one of Schoeck’s 380 lieder, and his performance was both eloquent and shocking, this meditation on death in a nailed coffin. The orchestral tone poem was as spirited as the textual delivery. Guillermo Garcia Cuesta’s trumpet was magnificent! And also the horn of William Loveless! This work was an obscure masterpiece after poems by Gottfried Keller. Nagy’s diction in Ger man was precise and his dynamic delivery was arresting: “Farewell now, oh self, vain idol, / Whoever you may be, farewell, farewell.” Those echoing words freighting frightening and resigned nothingness. This was a treat, unlikely to be reprised.
Dimitri Mitropoulos’ Concerto Grosso (1930) in four movements appears today as an inventive curiosity. The first two movements wittily imitate French Baroque organ music. I thought this a lively academic exercise, yet the fierce atonal dissonance of the last movement had me almost jumping in my seat. Now Mitropoulos was speaking my language, that universal language of modernism. The orchestra was tempered and tight. It was clear that they were ready for bigger challenges.
Saving the best for dessert: Igor Stravinsky’s Divertimento and The Fairy’s Kiss Suite (1928). These short pieces are rarely played, but they are jewels from the great master of twentieth century music. The powerful, emphatic rhythms of Stravinsky in these four movements were enough to banish all chill. There was also a delicacy in the flute of Denis Saveleyev and harp of Emily Melendes in in the latter work, a ballet based upon the Hans Christian Anderson’s tale of the Ice Maiden. Percussion by Wanyuè Yè was memorable.
To hear these little performed diamonds in the night was an unusual treat. This performance was, in effect, a dress rehearsal for The Orchestra Now at Carnegie Hall on the evening of November 14.