While I admire most of Tchaikovsky’s music, I am not enamored of The Tempest tonal composition which he wrote in August 1873, on holiday within two weeks. I find it too serene and sentimental, devoid of Shakespeare, except the dramatization of a storm. I was not familiar with Prospero’s Incantations by Egon Wellesz, which was premièred in 1938 by Bruno Walter with the Vienna Philharmonic. Having just endured a tempest that relieved me of electricity for two days and having that electricity restored a couple of hours before I departed for the concert at Sosnoff Theater, I arrived without preconceptions. This was the U.S. premiere 81 years later, which struck me as slightly odd, yet here was the famous Viennese conductor Hans Graf at the podium with Bard College’s The Orchestra Now.
Wellesz was at the premiere in Amsterdam on the day Adolf Hitler annexed Austria, so he never returned yet was held as an enemy alien in England before he was released and began an academic career, notable as an expert on Byzantine music, while writing an immense body of musical compositions. Wellesz was Arnold Schoenberg’s first pupil and that influence shows, as harpist Emily Melendes explained in her informative introduction, yet he wrote original music. And here was the proof. While there was often a harsh edge to many harmonies, I found slight inclination to dissonance edgy, exciting, withholding from going too far or atonal. But what most delighted me was an array of sound combinations which I had never heard before.
Cellist Kelly Knox fiercely opened the first movement fugue and retained stalwart eloquence throughout the five-part work. The depiction of Prospero was quite Otherworldly and like Shakespeare Wellesz intimated another strange land of the imagination where flutes and horns carried startling messages. Graf conducted with baton in his right hand yet had an amazing array of left-hand gestures which helped swell the tempest itself and calm it down. Then Melendes’ harp was so smoothly lyrical and brimming with the pathos of her father’s death! The next movement personifying Caliban swelled with the savage edge of a new musical language—but of the future not the past, even perhaps an unconscious conjuration of the savage who had just annexed Austria. And in our current political atmosphere, this movement felt like it reflected where we are in this new savage land we now inhabit. But this could not continue! Prospero renounces the bewitching sorcery of flutes and horns, letting the pacific strings present his gentle apology for announcing temporary bad news. I was smitten and would not mind hearing this work again. Perhaps it might work its way into the traditional repertoire?
Franz Schubert’s Great Symphony in C, posthumously premiered in 1839, is not often played due to its difficulty and length. Cellist Kyle Anderson delivered an amusing introductory lecture with authoritative presence. Steven Harmon’s French horn opened with beguiling nuance. The woodwinds were seductive, the violins danced in triplets, and the dotted rhythms of the bass players added exciting undercurrent. The second movement featured the plaintive, haunting oboe of James Jihyun Kim’s oboe. Throughout this symphony I was especially impressed by the clarinet section with Mathew Griffith as Principal clarinetist. Jarrod Briley was brilliant on tuba. Under concertmaster Esther Goldy Roestan the violins delivered delicate delicious harmony in the second movement that lead to a marvelous crescendo. The lengthy, rambling Scherzo of the third movement leads the ear in complicated diversions with stomping Austrian peasant dances. The build up to the monumental finale of the massive fourth movement Sonata left not an iota of disappointment as the orchestra welded in unity.
With robust applause the audience demanded not two bows as they did with Wellesz but three, as Graf appeared to gesture “it’s not me, but them.”