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The Orchestra Now Unfrozen at Bard

Arm-chair touring in winter
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Sun Feb 14th, 2016

From left: Susan Platts, Leon Botstein, Charles Reid

Although this is only their first season, this Saturday evening was the twelfth concert performed by the newly formed The Orchestra Now under the baton of Leon Botstein at Bard College. 

The first half of the program as the Sosnoff Theater featured violinist Tianpei Ai, a junior at Bard, performing in Max Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy in E-flat major, op. 46, a work inspired by the historical novels of Sir Walter Scott. The solemn adagio opening conjured a funereal panorama of fruitless martyrdom. The following Adagio cantabile lilted with folksy optimism as harp and violin evoked images of peasants dancing in cottages. The succeeding scherzo projected dances in the open fields with bagpipe nuance by the brass. Shifting to sober melancholy, the third movement Andante sostenuto lamented the absence of distilled spirits to conjure proper patriotism and the dream of independence. The rousing finale presents a romantic cry for another go at the old below Hadrian’s Wall.

Six years after Bruch’s 1881 Liverpool premiere Hamish MaCunn was on Bruch’s heels with a parallel pastoral in his popular Land of the Mountain and the Flood. The genial lyricism of such travelogues now grace the stage with quaint snapshots of a rural world imbued with narrow charm. Tianpei Ai managed to enter into the emotion of a Romantic undershirt in the finale. This excursion was a showcase for a young, emerging talent.

The second half of the program traveled into the late Orientalist fad popularized by French writers and later Ezra Pound in London, yet Mahler actually brought out his work in 1909, several years before Pound’s Cathay (1915). Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth) offered a version of early Chinese poetry as German lieder.

Tenor Charles Reid ably performed that youthful male perspective of wanting to drink poetry from a bottle but found himself helplessly mired in juvenile ambition, while mezzo-soprano Susan Platts expressed not only her Romantic loneliness but the poetic wisdom and achievement of the more advanced feminine sensibility that Mahler admired in his wife, Alma Schindler.

The Orchestra Now responded to the singers with lusty energy and the brass, in particular, excelled. Mahler’s music with its artful allusions to gongs and flowing water transcends the genre of tourist landscape. Despite the single degree temperature walk on the coldest day of the year to the seemingly distant parking lots, the contented audience chatted with abandon.