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Romantic moodscape at Bard

Music review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Sun Dec 4th, 2016

Gerard Schwarz with Bard Conservatory members

The Bard Conservatory Orchestra at Sosnoff Theater opened its Sunday afternoon concert with Mathew Woodard’s (b. 1994) Aurora, Scene for Orchestra. Inspired by dreamlike swirls found in whirling northern lights, this piece generated excitement by opening with moody mystery. Two related tunes danced in opposition to each other as they flickered in intensity. After ten minutes the interplay collapsed, as if each tune fell into the arms of the other. The arc became a circle of stasis. Woodard offered program notes relating the structural concept of his music to Herman Melville’s 1865 poem “Aurora Borealis,” a dense poem of innuendo about the end of the American Civil War. The music was attractively meditative, questing. Peace appeared as sanity. Young Woodard, one of Bard’s most promising prodigies, has obvious talents in structure and orchestral composition. I‘ve heard him play the violin on a couple of occasions. He’s a polished talent who merits a patron or residence in Rome, the likes of which young Howard Hanson enjoyed.   

This was followed by Howard Hanson’s most popular symphony, Symphony No. 2 in D-flat major, Opus 30, often nicknamed “Romantic.” Hanson paid no attention to Modernism, a movement he found foreign to his Mid-Western sensibility. Hanson was in the Nebraska mold of his Scandinavian roots. He looked no further than Jean Sibelius and Ottorino Respighi for inspiration. Premiered by Koussevitzky conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra on November 28, 1930, this symphony instantly entered the classic American repertoire. With rich arcing melodies Hansen sought to pacify the populace, dispel the clouds of misery that roiled the landscape. In three movements it features a haunting and memorable melody in the first movement and a third movement that hefts a thrill that the Bard Conservatory Orchestra rose to with extra excitement generated by three trombones. Gerard Schwarz, Guest Conductor and conductor laureate of the Seattle Symphony, emerged for a second bow. Schwarz had generated genuine excitement for a piece most would consider quite tepid. Schwarz related well with students and his demands were met. I’m not a Hanson fan, yet I admit that the third movement is memorable for its strings and horns. Two years before Hanson’s death, Ridley Scott’s 1979 sci-fi horror flick Alien had plagiarized excerpts of this particular symphony (especially the concluding credit roll), yet Hanson did not deign to sue.

Jean Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 42 supplied the second half of the card. As with Hanson, this 1902 effort remains the most popular of Sibelius’ symphonies (and the most recorded). While the first movement flirts with nascent fragments, the third a redolent oboe, the apex-like crescendo and climax remains Romantic in technique and effect, especially in intense dynamics with forceful woodwinds, trumpets, and tympani. Brevity, density, and powerful brass chords display the inspiring original in whose shadow Hanson labored as he articulated his American idiom.

This was a satisfying and pleasing concert in the face of abbreviated sunlight.