Last night the American Symphony Orchestra presented the first concert of its 2011-12 Carnegie Hall series, a tribute to Johann Sebastian Bach viewed through the prism of his influence on German music in the period between World Wars I & II. Under the title "Bauhaus Bach," the program presented transcriptions and arrangements of Bach's music by Max Reger, Arnold Schoenberg, and Wolfgang Graeser, interspersed with performances of newly-commission orchestrations of three Bach-inspired fugues by Lyonel Feininger (generally known, if known at all, as an artist rather than as a composer), and Schoenberg's Op. 31 Variations for Orchestra.
The result was a long evening with lots of Bach, but a rewarding one, despite some uneveness of performance in the first half. The orchestra, under the direction of their Music Director, Leon Botstein, sounded a bit tentative to me in its playing prior to intermission — except for the Schoenberg Variations, probably the most difficult piece on the program. Perhaps the Variations received the lion's share of rehearsal time among those items. Or perhaps it is that the Bach items and the very tonal Feininger fugues (orchestrated colorfully by Richard Wilson for this concert) were more calculated to reveal imprecisions of intonation and ensemble, whereas the stranger Schoenberg piece would conceal such problems by its very unfamiliarity. The highlight of the first half for me was the Reger orchestration for string orchestra of the chorale prelude BWV 622, "O Mensch, bewein dein' Sunde gross," which shouldn't have even been on the program, because Reger's death predated the Bauhaus movement.
Despite its reputation for excellent program notes, the ASO managed on this occasion to perform several pieces with German titles without providing any translations in the notes – other than the utterly unnecessary parenthetical indication that the title of Schoenberg's Op. 31, Variationen fur Orchester, meant Variations for Orchestra. Maybe somebody in the ASO office has a perverted sense of humor. This looked to me like the annotations on a PDQ Bach recording! Either that, or Dr. Botstein, who was born in Germany and undoubtedly needs no translations, assumes that his audience members are all literate in German as well.
I found the second half to be much better played. It began with Schoenberg's orchestration of Bach's Prelude and Fugue in Eb, BWV 552 (usually referred to as the St. Anne Prelude & Fugue, for reasons that went totally unexplained in the program notes). This piece has been recorded several times and suggests that Schoenberg had a sense of humor. Yes, the very odd orchestration seems to fight against the music at every turn, and Schoenberg's strange instrumentation choices at times hyper-inflate the music, composed by Bach for organ, into a near-travesty of itself. One listens in fascinated, if occasionally bemused, horror.
The last work on the program was a real novelty, an orchestration made by a German teenager in the mid-1920s of selected movements from Bach's "Art of the Fugue." "Art of the Fugue" stands as one of the greatest polyphonic compositions of all time. Bach wrote it without designating any instrumentation, as if it were a polyphonic exercise to be admired but not played. It is usually played on keyboards (sometimes involving two players), although there have been many arrangements for various performing ensembles. Wolfgang Graeser, who committed suicide at age 21 shortly after the piece was first performed (no suggestion in the notes that his suicide was due to critical reactions to this piece), devised a scheme by which Contrapunctus 1 was performed with one string player to each of the parts, gradually expanding the instrumentation in each succeeding movement, until Contrapunctus XIX involves a full string orchestra with flutes, oboes, english horns, bassoons, trumpets, trombones, and organ, making a magnificent sound until the music peters out where Bach left the movement unfinished at his death, followed by a gently discreet orchestration of the chorale prelude that Carl Phillip Emanuel Bach selected from among his father's compositions to complete the work when he arranged for its posthumous publication. In the later movements, it managed to sound like the inflated Bach arrangements that Leopold Stokowski, founder of the ASO, introduced in the 1920s to popularize Bach's organ and sacred music for symphony audiences.
I thought Graeser's orchestration provided an effective way to enjoy the work, and the decision to present only selected movements made for an attention-grabbing half hour. (Did Graeser orchestrate the entire work, or was the ASO playing every movement that he orchestrated? The notes were not enlightening as to this.)
This was a very interesting concert, and despite the imprecisions in playing in the first half a reasonably effective one. One would love to hear how some of these orchestrations would sound in the hands of the New York Philharmonic, with its glorious string section. The ASO was about as effective as any recording I've heard of the Schoenberg St. Anne, but then their second-half playing seemed much more assured to me. My main complaint, as noted above, is that the program notes could have been much more informative – an unusual complaint in light of the ASO's past record on program annotations.
The ASO has an exciting series planned, and tickets throughout the house are subsidized at a very reasonable price of $25, so the hall should be full (and would be if classical concert audiences in New York were more adventurous and less wedded to the familiar). Dec. 11: Parallel Lives: Liszt & Busoni; Jan. 20: Stravinsky Outside Russia; Feb. 10: Orientalism in France; March 18: The Hunchback of Notre Dame (there's an opera you haven't seen at the Met); April 19: Crumb (a tribute to the fantastic contemporary composer George Crumb – be there or be square).