ASO Plays Music from the Bible

For their second concert of the season, Leon Botstein and the American Symphony Orchestra gave us a fascinating glimpse of music from a period not very well represented in our concert life, the 1820s and 1830s.  With the exception of the latest works of Beethoven, the contemporaneously produced works of Franz Schubert, and the earliest efforts of Mendelssohn and Berlioz, what works do we hear from this period on symphony programs in the U.S.?  Not much.  So to hear major works for voices and orchestra by Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel (Oratorio on Scenes from the Bible of 1831) and Ludwig Spohr (The Final Judgment of 1825-26) is a revelation of the background against which the greatest masters were writing.  The concert took place at Carnegie Hall on November 2.

This may not sound very original, but I thought Fanny Mendelssohn's piece bore a strong family resemblance to the works that her younger brother, Felix, was writing and would be writing in the near future.  Recall that the 17-year old Felix wrote the Midsummer Night's Dream Overture a few short years before Fanny composed this oratorio.  Their styles are very similar, the major difference, in my opinion, being that Felix had the greater genius for inventing memorable themes and developing them in interesting ways.  We do have to remember, also, that Fanny's piece is the work of a 26 year old composer.  If it compares unfavorably with the Spohr piece, which I think it does, then be reminded that Spohr was over 40 and a much more experienced composer and performer than Fanny when he wrote his oratorio.  On the other hand, there is a good reason why Spohr's music, acclaimed in his time, is not in the standard repertory today.  The man was an expert craftsman, but like Fanny he was deficient in coming up with truly memorable themes.  I thought there were many spectacular moments in his piece, in terms of orchestration, use of the chorus and solo voices, etc., but it was not a piece one would be eager to hear repeatedly, because there was nothing all that memorable about it.

That is to say, having heard both these pieces, I found them worthy offerings, served up with aplomb by the performers, and I'm glad I heard them performed live — I have a recording of the Mendelssohn piece, but couldn't recall any of it having heard that recording, and I doubt I played it more than once when acquired years ago — but I understand why they are novelties while such contemporary works as the Schubert 9th Symphony, the Felix Mendelssohn Midsummer Night's Dream Overture, and of course Beethoven's 9th Symphony, are repertory staples that one can listen to repeatedly without losing interest.

The vocal soloists were Heather Buck, Cynthia Hanna, Brian Stucki and Philip Horst.  The Collegiate Chorale, prepared by their director James Bagwell, was a major presence throughout the program.  The orchestra was in fine form, and Leon Botstein conducted as if he believed in every note.  His dedication to reviving interesting works is an important service to memory, and helps us to appreciate the masterworks of the time by knowing the context.  It is said that the hall wasn't packed.  In this huge metropolitan area, could not a few hundred music lovers be found who were sufficiently curious to come out to hear something "new"?  On the other hand, it was election day, and people were undoubtedly entranced at home watching the returns come in…

The next concert in the series will present the United States premiere of Alberic Magnard's opera, Berenice.  OK, you've never heard of Magnard?  Take it from me, he was a very accomplished composer — I know his symphonies from recordings; who plays them in the US today???? — and I am curious to hear this opera.  The concert is on January 30 at Carnegie.  Still to come in the season: Composers of the Spanish Civil War (February 25), American Harmonies (Music of Walter Piston) (March 29), and a performance of Paul Dessau's Haggadah shel Pesach (April 21).  Anybody in the least curious to hear fine performances of unusual music should be rushing to get tickets for these.

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