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On the Edge with Leon Botstein

Music review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Fri Dec 8th, 2017

From left: Cyrus Beroukhim, Alena Baeva, Leon Botstein

An unusual program of mid-twentieth century East-European compositions was performed at Alice Tully Hall by the American Symphony Orchestra (in its 56th season) under the baton of Leon Botstein. The program began with Music for Strings, Trumpets, and Percussion (1958) by Graźyna Bacewicz. The opening movement portrays horns as socially agreeable to strings, yet individual syncopations disrupt this geniality. The duet of a solo viola and double bass introduce an attractive theme that the strings agreeably join, yet a cello, then horns appear to disagree, and a discordant muddle emerges. The third movement with its “drums to the guillotine” theme appears to dramatize the death of the artist who introduces socially unacceptable ideas. The playing of the first and third movements sounded lackluster; players did not appear to respond or understand Botstein’s enthusiastic gestures.

Bohuslav Martinů’s Symphony No. 6, nicknamed Fantasias symphoniques, followed. The first movement appears to describe the slow murmur of a sunrise in the lyric Romantic mode. The second movement begins with the sound of imaginary insects and segues into a poetic violin solo marvelously performed by Concertmaster Cyrus Beroukhim; then suddenly in the orchestra occurs the rise of formidable dissonance. The orchestra was now playing with intense, unified spontaneity and immediacy under Botstein’s baton as a conflict for supremacy between Modernism and Romanticism developed. The third movement, based upon Dvořák’s Requiem, floats into wistful sunset, lamenting the passing of the neo-Classical movement, as if relinquishing the glories of that style. Although anti-climactic, the ending conveys resonance.

After intermission, Alena Baeva performed Bacewicz’s 1965 Violin Concerto No. 7. I was only aware of it in a recording by Joanna Kurkowicz whose 2009 interpretation was gracefully neo-Classical. Baeva’s tour-de-force performance was thoroughly Modern, heavy with dissonance. Since this appeared to be an exercise of the individual artist, the orchestra was limited to occasional mood mutterings and functioned like a discarded appendage. Baeva was by turns startling with her dynamics on the Stradivarius, fascinatingly dramatic, parsing the violin and its sounds as the most magnificent instrument ever invented. This was impressive showmanship, yet I found the aesthetic championed to be opportunistically quirky and elusive.  

Alfred Schnittke, inventor of polystylism (where styles of past and present jostle), heir to Shostakovich’s oblique and determined independence, is of the most prolific composers of the twentieth century, yet his music is rarely performed in the United States. He is a composer of extraordinary sounds, vertical movement, erudite quotation, visceral emotion. As a Russian composer, he was fully open to varied Western influences and digested them in order to transcend them. Schnittke’s Fifth Symphony is his last extroverted (an explicit dead end) work before he turned inward to more obscure (and according to some, his finest work) avenues of exploration.

Commissioned for the 100th Anniversary of the Netherlands Concertgebuow, the Fifth Symphony begins with a loose “Concerto Grosso” (Schnittke’s Fourth). The opening Charles Ives-like fanfare quickly descends into self-parody, then the violin and oboe, voices of sanity, compete unsuccessfully with the orchestra—the dominating orchestra appears to overwhelm individual voice. The following Allegretto, based upon Mahler’s unfinished 1876 Piano Quartet, appears to dramatize the difficulty of the artist in completing work amid social repression in a society which is here depicted as a dysfunctional lunatic asylum. The gloomy Lento and Allegretto of the third movement appear to lament didactically the death of artistic freedom.

The final Lento, based upon the conclusion of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony where the ending Lento is usually interpreted as Tchaikovsky’s personal Requiem, appears to go beyond mere self-elegy (those beating drums being a reference to his recent heart attack) and plunges into an angry lament for the coming monumental self-destruction of humankind to the point of extinction. Both percussion and dissonant note clusters with horns lend a Mahlerian bluntness which the ASO shudderingly rendered with Gothic zest, yet when a hundred musicians on stage bombastically conclude by producing noise rather than music (too many false endings at work), one realizes that political protest has completely swamped music. When music is reduced to mere politics, then it is no longer music.

I presume that this nightmare protest was directed toward the current administration which is cutting all support for the arts. But the politicians doing that were not here and the audience once more became the victim of our daily, obscene, national shenanigans without a coherent script.

“The Triumph of Art” was the program title: the first work dramatized the artist as social scapegoat; the second offered an encomium to individuality; the third work admitted the failure of neo-Classical aesthetics to address our plight; the fourth work concluded that politics trumped and triumphed over art amid artistic defiance. Rather than the dour, heavy hammer of Slavic irony, I prefer that rare lightness, Molière-like elegance, subtle frivolity of French wit when facing the Absurd.