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Emphatic Romantic Bookends at Bard

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

Leon Botstein and the Bard Conservatory Orchestra

Bard Conservatory Orchestra opened with Johann Nepomuk Hummel’s Trumpet Concerto in E-flat Major this past Saturday evening with trumpet soloist Szabolcs Koczur. This pleasant ice-breaker showcased Koczur’s svelte tone and adroit dynamics. The slight Romantic inflection of this Classical piece in the hands of Kocur was appropriate to the program since the trumpet was playing Prelude to two significant Romantic symphonies.

Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67 is perhaps his most popular symphony because of its emphatic rhythms and the interwoven motifs of the personal and the public. This synergetic crystallization of personal aspiration and fierce public conflict was the epic signature of the great Romantic works in literature. Like most great Romantics, Beethoven looked fate in the eye and found fate a moveable obstacle. If Fate was a shuttered door, one could put one’s shoulder to it and move it an inch or blow it wide open. Such defiant heroism furnished the grit of the Romantic Movement. And this symphony was a monumental codification of that idea. Hector Berlioz was so moved by hearing this symphony that in his Memoirs (chapter 20), he became a clown for Beethoven: “Marvelous! It has so upset and bewildered me that when I wanted to put on my hat, I could not find my head!”

The Bard Conservatory Orchestra under the baton of Leon Botstein delivered a good professional performance. The third movement scherzo emphasized that wonderful dialog between strings and wind instruments, followed by one of the most delicious crescendos in symphonic history. Here the orchestra was in top, unified form. The playful optimism of the concluding fourth movement can cheer up a dead mouse and its merriment can cure cynicism, which is why this healing symphony remains an enduring masterpiece.

While Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 was the last great Romantic symphony, it also announced a German composer who would provide an alternative to Wagner, who so dominated the musical atmosphere that other composers could not breathe. Mahler was clearly inspired by the private-public dialog of Beethoven’s Fifth. Public dance tunes and private mediations appear whimsically woven into a many-colored robe. As in Beethoven, Nature and Society remains an immense canvas as Mahler teeters between minimalist and maximalist, concluding with the latter with one of the great all-time climaxes—a climax that for some time appears to have no conclusion. One feels that it can’t continue but it does, and when those seven horns stand to deliver their judgment, you know your bones will rattle and they do—with thrills!

Botstein succeeded in elevating the students to play beyond their individual levels. They played with energy, excitement, and emotional furor. Violinists Zhen Liu and Bihan Li were superb. Cellist Kaila Piscietelli played with palpable finesse. Amy Cassiere on oboe projected soul. Karolina Krajewsky on clarinet played with confident perfection. The brass and timpani were shockingly exquisite. The ghost of Mahler smiled. Students knew they had nailed the performance—they were beside themselves with joy.

We heard the enormous bookends of the Romantic symphony. One of the high middle peaks, Anton Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony, of the Romantic Symphonic Movement will be played next Saturday at Bard’s Sosnoff Theater by the TON Orchestra under the baton of Gerard Schwarz, conductor laureate of the Seattle Symphony.