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First Orchestra Now Concert at Bard Casts a Spell

Music review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Sun Sep 24th, 2017

Chaojun Yang and Orchestra Now members

The first Orchestra Now concert of the season opened with Modest Mussorgsky’s Gothic Night on Bald Mountain, a celebration of the mythical witches Sabbath. An amusing romp, it certainly gets one’s attention. Tchaikovsky, however in upper class fashion, disapproved of Mussorgsky as low and base: “he passes the bounds of the possible.” Yet Mussorgsky was the first to introduce program music to Russia. Although an extreme sensationalist, Mussorgsky is a force to be reckoned with; he remains easier to take in small doses like this where the world of rationality is left behind in favor of superstition and eerie dramatic effect. The orchestra of many new faces brought out the deliciously desired shiver. Mussorgsky had tried to slip the composition into a number of failed operas; it was not performed until five years after his death.

Moving to the new diabolism of modern dissonance, Sergei Prokofiev’s brash Piano Concerto No. 2 offered more sensibly shocking sounds that were even more mystifying yet provided a fresh new voice that announced a swerve in musical thinking away from nineteenth century notions of harmony and beauty. Here was the point where Romanticism turned from truth to realism. This concerto was far more shocking than Mussorgsky and I can never tire of listening to it. For a long time, Prokofiev was the only one who could play it—the final fourth movement requires an array of tour-de-force cross-handed movement dizzying to watch. In this case, the Steinway was in good hands with pianist Chaojun Yang, a former Bard student and winner of several international competitions. 

The opening cadenza arrives at a truly symphonic climax, displaying that the piano also can climax with the orchestra; then the piano performs a quiet reprise of the opening theme, a wondrous lyrical depth that an orchestra cannot match. The short following Scherzo sounds like a wind-up toy or society that collapses in emptiness. The following Allegro is in the barbaric mode of Mussorgsky but dissonant with high shrieking brass with melody only arriving in the middle section then falling to barbarity. The Finale with its great octave leaps sets the modern world against the Russian lyric past and the opening cadenza resounds with apocalyptic crash. It sounded like Prokofiev was predicting the Revolution to come, yet the first performance score (1913) was destroyed in the 1917 revolution and the concerto was re-written in 1924. Whether the prophecy was in the original or belated hindsight, it does not matter: it is there in memorable force. Chaojun Yang and the orchestra had provided the climax of the night.

Next was Tchaikovsky’s little performed Third Symphony. Tchaikovsky was happiest with the first two movements. Most critics have agreed and some (like me) have approved of the following Scherzo. The energetic Finale is not bad music, but it remains so extroverted that we have somehow moved into a different landscape, a colder but more boisterous landscape that seems foreign to the previous terrain, so that it appears to be sound work rather than inspired continuity. The orchestra played well as it visibly responded to Leon Botstein’s firm direction, but the symphony was anti-climactic after the Prokofiev marvel that shook one’s eardrums with such disorientating pleasure.