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What’s wrong with Romance?

Music review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Sun Dec 6th, 2015

The Bard College Conservatory of Music presented an all-Romantic program on Sunday afternoon with fog swirling about Sosnoff Theater. They opened with Czech composer Vitӗzslav Novák’s In the Tatra Mountains (1907), a late Romantic landscape tableaux in the vein of Alexander Borodin’s In the Steppes of Central Asia (1880). Rich in melodies reminiscent of Rimski-Korsakov, Novák painted threatening clouds, then an enormous tempest, the conclusion mercifully bathing in peaceful sunlight. Evocative and short, this warm-up piece set a pleasant mood.

A revival of Ernest Bloch’s music appears to be blooming; Swiss-born Bloch, who died in 1959, arrived in the United States in 1916, but it was not until Suite for Viola and Orchestra (1919) that his career took off. The first movement, far more ambitious and complicated than Novak’s bagatelle, created a drama around the primitive aspect of nature as it introduced short themes that would later be exploited. Intriguing and captivating, it led into the grotesque humor of the second movement that depicted caricatures of how humankind projects its fears onto nature. The third movement extolled the calm mystery of tranquil night juxtaposed with Javanese dances where featured violinist Ye Zi, dressed in languorous green melon, expertly endowed Debussy-like coloring to Oriental flights of fancy.

Switching to the simplicity of the pentatonic scale, the fourth movement provided perhaps the most cheerful music Block ever wrote. This happy reversal was not only rooted in Bloch’s psyche, but may have reflected the naïve and heady optimism engendered by the conclusion of World War I. At the helm, guest- conductor JoAnn Falletta conducted with an energetic concision that brought the student orchestra up to the professional level.

Falletta’s dynamic charisma guided the orchestra through Johannes Brahms’ Symphony No. 2. with aplomb. At one point Falletta appeared to be dancing at the podium; her contagious energy led both strings and horns to magnificent heights, especially in the resounding conclusion of the happiest music Brahms ever wrote in his use of the jubilant Scot strathspey dance rhythm. This well-forged program of optimistic Romantic music offered a healing tonic from the blood-curdling news headlines hurled at our eyes daily. The Romantics are also realists in psychological healing.