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Healing the divide at Bard

by Kevin T. McEneaney
Sun Apr 24th, 2016

Leon Botstein and the TON Orchestra

Leon Botstein, widely acclaimed as an adroit programmer, offered a probing dialectic at Saturday night's TON orchestra performance in Bard's Fisher Hall: the modernist school of  Charles Ives versus the late retro-Romanticism of Jean Sibelius.

Ives' Three Places in New England, written between 1911-14, provide a meditation on the future of American society. The first movement reflects on St. Gaudens monument (at Boston Commons) to Colonel Shaw and his Colored Regiment, a most imposing sculpture. This piece exudes hope for the future with a severe note of warning in the crescendo. The second moment memorializes the decline of American rural life amid the growth of popular urban culture. The apocalyptic satire of its dissonant climax brings one up sharp with the realization of how prophetic was Ives' vision of the future. The third movement satirized American popular music as an inane force that divided humanity from authentic rural roots. This was social commentary at its zenith.

Stepping back into the apex of string Romanticism, Xi Yang, who graduated from Bard last year, featured on cello in Tchaikovsky's Rococo Variations (1877) where the elegance of strings painted an intricate tapestry of artificiality divorced from cares of life. Xi Yang played with admirable power and subtlety, yet grew rather thin in the final variation and coda, but it was a satisfying performance that thrilled the audience.

The agnostic question hung in the air during intermission. Did the future belong to Sibelius whose legacy has flowered fruitfully in Finland, a legacy that now rivals those Americans who followed in the footsteps of Ives: Cage, Riley, Adams, and others. A synthesis of these two rival traditions appeared in the world premiere of Tamzin Elliott's Daughters Concerto with Blair McMillen on the piano, which began more with the dissonant tradition tamed and feminized. Piano and orchestra discussed and debated the situation. Strings argued for more lyricism and mysticism as the piano made modulating compromises while always pushing into new rhythms, new terrain, new sounds of exploration. The result was suspenseful, engaging, enlightening. Yes, one could have both streams flow as one. For me this piece was a memorable revelation, the highlight of the evening.

Daniel Zlatkin's Climb, also a world premiere, employed Tibetan musical motifs that garnered suspense as it moved upward. This piece was exceptionally well-orchestrated. The climax appeared as an anti-climax, a joke, as if at the end of the Buddhist journey there was nothing. Here was reverse Petrarchism: it was not the view that was important, but the journey itself. This was clever, exciting, witty, and amusing.

Sibelius' Symphony No. 5 concluded the evening. While the somewhat comic and startling finale is world famous, the first movement is haunting, its conclusion a startling marvel. Writing in the Romantic idiom Sibelius conjures the mystic transcendence of nature like no one else. He remains focused on nature rather than the feeble achievements and vanities of humankind. There is great wisdom in both perspectives, nature and social critique, and, yes, both perspectives need not be different, vying schools of music: they can be synthesized as Bard seniors Zlatkin and Elliott have shown.