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The Orchestra Now Becomes Relevant

Stravinsky Reborn
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Sun Nov 15th, 2015

Violinists from Orchestra Now

The Orchestra Now under the baton of James Bagwell rolled out its second performance in Sosnoff Theater at Bard College on November 14. The orchestra is about play various venues in New York City, its next stop being the Metropolitan Museum.

The concept of the offered program was to load the first half with rarely performed pieces, then to back-load with a known audience favorite. To that effect they opened with Felix Mendelssohn’s  Ruy Blas overture to a Victor Hugo play of that name. The man sitting next to me had played for twenty years in one of America’s leading symphonies and he thought he knew all of Mendelssohn, yet was not familiar with this piece, a brief but pleasant warm-up.

The choice of Igor Stravinsky’s Symphony in C was just as arcane, since it has rarely ever been performed, if ever, since Stravinsky’s death. The symphony, his second, occupies Stravinsky’s neo-classical phase. In its four movements, I propose a new interpretation: each of the four movements depicts a dramatic schema with the traditional four elements—earth, air, fire, water. The first movement, written in Paris during 1939, meditates on death. His daughter Mika had recently died of tuberculosis and Stravinsky could not bear to attend the funeral. Shortly thereafter, Stravinsky himself was hospitalized for pulmonary lesion. He was convinced he was about to die. The sounds of rolling rocks at the end of the movement allude to Stravinsky’s own unexpected resurrection from the hospital.

The death of his wife Katya from tuberculosis quickly followed. Stravinsky moved to Switzerland to dispense with obsession on death, as much as for reasons of health. There he composed the windy Alpine air section of the second movement. Fleeing Europe and the war, he landed at Harvard University in Boston where he composed the third movement of fire and destruction while he watched the war unfold.

The fourth movement was composed in Los Angeles by the Pacific Ocean. There is much tempest tossing, wavelike sounds rising and falling, an evocation of water. The crescendo, a Slavonic liturgical “chant” enunciated by bassoons, evokes a Russian baptismal song that dwindles in the tinkling of water droplets. The symphony, dedicated “To the Glory of God,” concludes with the emotional re-birth of not only the composer in his new-found land of refuge where he became a citizen, but the hope that America will be baptized with goodness in the war’s aftermath.

The second half of the program explored Antonín Dvorák’s Symphony No. 8 (actually his fourth in the order of its composition). Here the orchestra under Bagwell’s direction excelled in unity, pacing, nuance. They were clearly well-rehearsed, engagingly directed. This ever-popular 1889 symphony glories with subtlety in the evocation of pastoral life. The dramatic dialectic between rustic life and clamorous urban life vacillates back and forth in a series of clashing tableaux. Although the composer clearly identifies with the beauty of country landscape and gypsy tunes, raucous city life ironically triumphs in the empty bustle of the finale, a finale that exuberantly articulates the sheer insanity of what has taken hold of humanity as a mass “product.” The work remains profoundly prophetic and “eternally” relevant.