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Posts Tagged ‘Antonin Dvorak’

American Symphony Orchestra Examines Obscure Works of Major Composers

Posted on: March 27th, 2015 by Art Leonard No Comments

Last night at Carnegie Hall, the American Symphony Orchestra presented “Opus Posthumous,” a concert devoted to works that were not first performed until after the deaths of their composers. These included an opera overture by Franz Schubert to an opera never published or performed in his lifetime, Anton Bruckner’s Symphony No. 00 (a study symphony he composed but did not consider suitable for performance), and Antonin Dvorak’s Symphony No. 1, which was composed for entry into a composition contest. Dvorak sent his only copy of the handwritten manuscript, which was never returned to him, and the work was long thought lost, only to show up years later in a bookstore where it was purchased by somebody who shared the composer’s surname but was not a relative. The piece was first performed long after the composer’s death, and then in an abridged version.

This was a very pleasant concert of 19th century romantic music, but none of the works is an imperishable masterpiece. Indeed, my opinion after the concert was that Dvorak was lucky the piece was not played when it was written, because it could have impeded his career.  The orchestration is amateurish in places, creating a heavy and clotted effect, and the development of the themes is unduly repetitious.  Some good ideas are just buried under clumsy orchestration, unfortunately. 

Dvorak and Bruckner were late bloomers as mature symphonists.  Dvorak wrote nine symphonies, but published only the last five, and until mid-20th century, most music lovers would say their favorite was Dvorak’s Symphony No. 5, the “New World Symphony.”  By the time I was learning about classical music in the 1960s, it was usually identified as Symphony No. 9 (old “No. 5”), as by then the earlier unpublished symphonies had been edited and published in a complete edition of Dvorak’s music.  But the first four symphonies are rarely performed, as he really didn’t hit his stride until “old No. 1,” which is now known as Symphony No. 6.  Old No. 2 became Symphony No. 7, Old No. 3 became Symphony No. 5, and Old No. 4 became Symphony No. 8.  This is all ancient history for the generation of classical music lovers following me.  With Bruckner, there is last night’s Symphony No. 00, then his first published Symphony, No. 1, then Symphony No. 0 which comes before Symphony No. 2.  Bruckner was very self-critical and withheld pieces from publication if they didn’t meet his high standards.  Bruckner’s situation is complicated by his tendency to revise, abetted by some of his younger supporters who thought his music would be more readily accepted if he would just shorten things!  So there are multiple versions of most of the published symphonies, including so many versions of Symphony No. 3 and Symphony No. 4 (two completely different versions of one of the movements are floating about) that one can easily lose count.

Last night’s Bruckner was a pleasant student work that shows few signs of the mature composer.  Indeed, it sounded much like the Schubert overture that came before it on the program.

There’s nothing seriously wrong with any of these pieces, but none of them stand to become part of the standard orchestral repertory, as they are put in the shade by other works of the composers. The ASO played them all very well under Leon Botstein’s direction, as members of the audience had a rare opportunity to hear works by major composers that they are not likely to get to hear in live performance ever again! This is central to the ASO’s mission under Botstein’s leadership.  To cast light in dark corners….

NY Philharmonic Debuts: Arabella Steinbacher & Joshua Weilerstein

Posted on: October 16th, 2013 by Art Leonard No Comments

The NY Philharmonic’s most recent subscription program presented debuts for the soloist and the conductor.  Violinist Arabella Steinbacher, already an established recording artist in Europe, performed the Violin Concerto in E Minor by Felix Mendelssohn, and Joshua Weilerstein, an assistant conductor of the orchestra, made his subscription concert debut.  (Presumably he has already led the orchestra several times in non-subscription events, such as the Young Peoples’ Concerts.)  I attended the last performance of this program, on Tuesday night, October 15, and found both debuts to be auspicious.

Steinbacher impressed particularly by her big, solid tone, excellent intonation, and gift for projecting the lyrical line.  That gift was challenged by the approach she and Weilerstein took, especially in the first movement, where I thought some of the tempo shifts were rather extreme and the forward momentum that makes this movement so inspiring came very close many times to being broken.  One really can’t tell whether this was attributable to the soloist’s wishes, the conductor’s desired approach, or a joint decision.  With an established soloist and a young debut conductor, one would expect that the soloist would set the pace.  But this situation of joint debuts brings to mind a famous anecdote from the orchestra’s distant history – when Vladimir Horowitz was making his solo debut with the orchestra in the Tchaikovsky 1st Piano Concerto on the same day that Thomas Beecham was making his debut as guest conductor.  The story is that Horowitz kept champing at the bit as Beecham adopted tempi much slower than his soloist desired.  As the end of the Concerto was in sight, Horowitz threw caution to the winds and took off at his desired tempo to the end, finishing the concerto while the orchestra continued to play.  I don’t know if this is truth or urban legend, but I’ve seen the story in many different sources.  In any event, nothing so untoward happened last night.  But my opinion of Weilerstein was somewhat adversely affected by my discomfort at the extreme tempo adjustments in the concerto.

After the intermission, however, my opinion changed drastically as I thoroughly enjoyed the performance of Antonin Dvorak’s Symphony No. 8.  This is a big romantic symphony and Weilerstein played it as such.  Here the tempo adjustments made perfect sense, and he did a great job of sustaining the singing lines in all four movements.  I was especially impressed by the third movement, where he had the orchestra swinging to the implicit waltz rhythms with real grace.  I think that in ten or fifteen years, if he is in a position to do this symphony again with such an excellent orchestra, he will do many things differently. This performance was full of youthful exuberance, but also youthful exaggeration in terms of tempi and dynamics.  I think with more experience he would moderate some of that, and achieve better balances between wind soloists and the strings, and between the brass and everybody else at the big moments.  This is a very powerful orchestra, playing in an unforgiving acoustical space that can magnify balance problems.  Holding back the brass until the final peroration would be helpful in making the last movement not seem like a series of false climaxes.  But, on balance, I thought it was a successful performance, it captured the spirit of the piece, and the orchestra played very well under the leadership of its assistance conductor.

The concert opened with Osvaldo Golijov’s expansion for full string orchestra of a piece he originally conceived for a string chamber ensemble, “Last Round,” intended as a tribute to the masters of the Argentine tango.  I think I would have preferred to hear the original version for nine solo strings, because the use of a full string orchestra introduces some monotony of texture in a piece that struck me as a bit formless, a bit meandering.  Perhaps a more experienced conductor would have made a difference here, although certainly it was a creditable performance.

On balance it was a good concert and a good debut for violinist and conductor.  I hope that we will hear more from both of them in future NYP seasons, and I conclude that if by chance there is an emergency need to replace a scheduled conductor, the NYP management can be sanguine about asking Mr. Weilerstein to step in rather than recruit an outsider (as they have done more often over the years).

Orchestral Weekend: NYP/Nelsons and ASO/Botstein

Posted on: February 12th, 2013 by Art Leonard No Comments

Two concerts attended this weekend:  On Saturday night, the New York Philharmonic with guest conductor Andris Nelsons and violin soloist Christian Tetzlaff.  On Sunday afternoon, the American Symphony Orchestra with conductor Leon Bostein.  My experience was a combination of the memorable and the forgettable.

First, the memorable.  For the second half of the NY Philharmonic concert, Nelsons led the orchestra in Bela Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra.  I thought this was probably the best performance that I’ve ever heard of this piece.  My acquaintance with the Concerto for Orchestra dates back to my early years as a record collector in the 1960s, when I purchased the Reiner/Chicago Symphony recording.  I’ve since heard many recordings and several live performances.  The first live performance I heard was by the New York Philharmonic, in a Parks Concerto conducted by the late Thomas Schippers (that really dates me, I guess).  I can’t specifically recall all the others, but I’ve heard several.  Never, however, have I been so overwhelmed as I was by this Saturday night’s performance.  Nelsons is not a restrained interpreter.  He intervenes to shape the music, bend the tempi, play with balances… and he is, like Leonard Bernstein was, a “jumper.”  That is, he tends to bounce around on the podium, giving the orchestra visual cues to animate the music, occasionally passing the baton off to his left hand while shaping the music with his right.  The orchestra responded with overwhelming absorption to his direction, producing a very exciting and involving performance.  The Concerto for Orchestra provides chances for every solo player and section to show off, and they all performed magnificantly.  For me, the sound of an orchestra is heavily defined by the principal oboe, and Liang Wang was the hero of the evening for me, in this as well as both pieces in the first half.

But the first half did not strike me nearly as strongly.  They opened with Antonin Dvorak’s symphonic poem, “The Noon Witch,” last performed by the orchestra in 2005 when Alan Gilbert appeared as a guest conductor.  The Dvorak tone poems aren’t played with any frequency by American orchestras, so its reappearance less than ten years later is itself worth comment, but the piece itself is not quite so distinctive as the last few symphonies.  I thought the orchestra played well, but I was not overwhelmed the way I was for the Bartok.  Tetzlaff in the Brahms Concerto was also a bit of a letdown, despite Nelsons’ hard work in keeping the piece moving.  I found the solo playing a bit hard-edged, lacking the romantic sweep that this concerto naturally invites.  Wang’s big oboe solo in the second movement was gorgeous, but the movement itself seemed to wander a bit.  Tetzlaff’s vehement attacks were most appropriate in the gypsy-toned finale.

The American Symphony Orchestra’s concerts always have a theme.  This time the title was “Truth or Truffles” and presented works by two composers whose lives were affected by the Nazi takeover of Germany. 

Karl Amadeus Hartmann, who detested the Nazis but found himself constrained from leaving the country, endured a sort of internal exile, his music unplayed, for the duration of that regime, emerging at war’s end as one of the few significant composers untainted by Nazi associations, and he continued composing until his death in 1963.  He did not live to complete Gesangsszene, a piece for baritone and orchestra setting words from the poem “Sodom and Gomorrah” by Jean Giraudoux, conveying a rather bleak view of the future of humanity.  At the first performance, baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau spoke the final lines that the composer had not lived to set, and the result was seen as dramatically apt.  Sunday’s soloist, Lester Lynch, did the same.  For me, that was actually the high point of the performance.  The piece lasts nearly half an hour, and perhaps the text dictates the mood, but I found it dour, off-putting, excessively noisy at times, and lacking thematic coherence or tunefulness.

Leon Botstein’s program note refers to “Strauss’ collaboration with the Nazi regime” in passing, which I find perhaps too simplistic a statement.  Strauss’s daughter-in-law was Jewish, and he was commandeered by the regime to be the figurehead of a state cultural agency, under the implicit threat of harm to his family if he did not cooperate.  He was not a Nazi propagandist or supporter, but he did pinch-hit as conductor at the Bayreuth Festival when Toscanini boycotted and thus lent his prestige as a senior conductor of world repute to the hated regime.  In any event, the ASO presented a work from the 1920s, what Botstein described as “Strauss’ perhaps least-respected score,” the ballet Schlagobers, which Botstein suggested might be a welcome replacement for the overly-repeated Nutcracker Ballet at Christmastime.  I beg to differ.  Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker is a work of compositional genius, with gorgeous melodies, great (and inventive) orchestration, and such innate musical interest that one can play the ballet as a concert piece without dancing and retain the active interest of the audience.  One could hardly say as much for the Strauss, which struck me as banal, lacking in memorable themes, and overly long.  When a major composition by a composer who has produced many works that have entered the standard orchestral repertory is widely-ignored, there is usually good reason.  Based on yesterday’s performance, I can’t imagine why an orchestra would devote 90 minutes on a concert program to this piece when they could present one of Strauss’ indubitably great pieces – Heldenleben, for example – instead.

That said, of course, there is a logic to presenting both of these pieces.  The ASO specializes in presenting rarely-heard works, and focuses attention on major works of little-known composers and neglected works of major composers.  This concert featured one of each.  They were probably each worth a performance, although putting both on one program was a bit of a strain for the listener, and this concert didn’t draw a big crowd.  Hartmann has never really caught on in America, and Schlagobers is obscure enough that it would not be a draw on any concert program.  This is the drawback of ASO’s programming, which was overcome at their prior concert by including the Brahms 4th Symphony on a program with the unknown Herzogenberg and the little-played Dvorak Symphony No. 4 (“new number,” not the “old” No. 4 that is now known as No. 8 and frequently played).  Perhaps that is a strategy worth emphasizing a bit more, if drawing more listeners is a goal.

American Symphony Explores Works of the 1880s at Carnegie Hall

Posted on: January 26th, 2013 by Art Leonard 1 Comment

Leon Botstein, the music director and conductor of the American Symphony Orchestra for the past twenty years, has emphasized thematic programming in constructing the orchestra’s concert schedule. There is always a thematic link of some sort between the pieces presented in a multi-piece program, and most of the orchestra’s annual Vanguard Series in New York City consists of such programs. Last night at Carnegie Hall, the theme was “What Makes a Masterpiece.” Botstein offered performances of Antonin Dvorak’s Symphony No. 4, Op. 13, Heinrich von Herzogenberg’s Symphony No. 1, Op. 50 (claimed to be the U.S. premiere), and Johannes Brahms’s Symphony No. 4, Op. 98. In his introduction to the concert, Botstein wrote that “tonight’s concert was designed to challenge received wisdom about the merits of musical works, and the criteria by which we judge music.” Botstein argues, in effect, that history can be unfair and mistaken, and that this concert was intended to prove the point.
Brahms’s 4th Symphony is performed regularly by all major symphony orchestras as an acknowledged masterpiece in the core of the standard repertory, and has received hundreds of recordings. Dvorak’s 4th Symphony, by comparison, is seldom performed, is regarded as an “early” work that is not quite ready for prime time, and has been recorded only in the context of recordings of the complete cycle of his nine symphonies, of which one current on-line catalogue suggests there are just shy of a dozen. Von Herzogenberg’s first of two symphonies, never previously played in America and rarely exhumed in Europe, enjoys a single recording by a second-rank central European radio orchestra on a record label that specializes in reviving obscurities. These three works were composed within a few years of each other, and share the idiom of central European Romanticism.
Botstein asserts that all three are worth hearing, and I agree, but I think the judgment of history on their relative merits is fair, and last night’s performances bore this out.

Dvorak’s 4th, composed in 1874 and revised for a possible performance in 1887-88, was not performed during the composer’s lifetime, languishing among his unpublished manuscripts until it finally received its premiere in Prague in 1982. Herzogenberg’s symphony was composed in 1885, promptly published, presumably performed (the program notes were ambiguous on this point), and quickly fell into obscurity as a poor copy of Brahms. Brahms’s 4th, a work of his full maturity (1884-85) that took some time to attain popularity, was recognized as an important symphonic statement by a major composer almost immediately.

Each of the symphonies is in four movements. Each begins with a large movement structured in some version of classic sonata form. Each continues with a slower, song-form movement, followed by a scherzo, and each concludes with a faster-paced movement intended to end with a “major statement.”
Dvorak’s symphony struck me as worth hearing, but not very often, and only one movement – the scherzo – stood out as really memorable. Indeed, the performance quickly brought to mind the only other time I’ve heard it performed at a symphony concert, back in the 1980s, I believe, when James Conlon selected it as the major work for his New York Philharmonic debut. I even recalled the surprised delight with which I heard the striding woodwind theme in that third movement that sounds like it could have come out of a middle-period Verdi opera. There are other felicities in this score. I thought the second theme in the first movement was absolutely gorgeous, and much of the orchestration already bore the distinctive sound of the Dvorak orchestra that really reached fruition in the 7th Symphony (especially the use of woodwinds). But as the orchestra surged past the exposition of themes in the opening movement and headed into the development section, it seemed to me that Dvorak did not quite know what to do with his themes, how to write a development that would retain the listener’s interest and set things up for the recapitulation. The second movement began with promise, but again I found that he didn’t quite know how to take those potentially interesting themes and develop them in an interesting way. The finale struck me as unduly repetitive, to the point that the closing pages sounded like a spoof of an overblown romantic symphony.
I have less to say about von Herzogenberg’s symphony. I agree with Botstein that it is a solid work that could stand an occasional airing and doesn’t deserve total obscurity. It certain illustrates the impact that Brahms had on the thinking of central European composers. The only movement that struck me as particularly successful, however, was the second movement, whose beautiful themes and orchestration sustain interest where the other movements lost my interest due to the bland themes and unimaginative instrumentation.

After hearing these works, the Brahms symphony seemed even greater by comparison. I heard Kurt Masur conduct the New York Philharmonic in this symphony earlier this season, and the comparison is a bit hard on the ASO, not least because that large Philharmonic string section makes the smaller ASO section sound a bit threadbare by comparison. The ASO had 12 first violins, 11 seconds, 8 violas and cellos, and 6 basses. I don’t remember the precise count from last fall’s concert, but in a work like this the Philharmonic would normally have at least 14 firsts and proportionately larger sections down the line. Gorgeously rich string sound, characteristic of the Philharmonic, was missing and very much missed last night in all three pieces.
Indeed, the ASO last night had about 75 players on the stage, a size intermediate between a chamber orchestra and a major symphony orchestra, but probably comparable in size to the Meiningen Court Orchestra that premiered the Brahms in 1885 with the composer on the podium. An orchestra of this size can make a splendid thing of the Brahms, and the spirit was there last night, as it was in the other two works, but the difference between a major orchestra with a big budget and a part-time orchestra like the ASO is significant. The strings sounded a little scrappy at times in fast passages, and a little scrawny in playing some of the big lyrical lines, the wind soloists were good without being spectacular (and the piccolo player was a bit over-the-top in the Brahms scherzo, overly dominating the woodwind sound at several points, while the triangle player was too reticent), and the brass lacked some of the technical finish that one hears from the Philharmonic. On the other hand, how likely is it that one will ever hear the New York Philharmonic playing Herzogenberg? And has it ever played the Dvorak 4th since that Conlon appearance decades ago?
This is the great merit of the ASO, despite any technical shortcomings. It gives us a chance to hear live performances of music that has fallen from view (or perhaps never even surfaced!), and lets us think about the valuable question that Botstein posed: Why are some pieces ubiquitous and others not? My answer, which may be too simplistic, is that Brahms was a musical genius of the first rank, Dvorak a musical genius of lesser rank, and Herzogenberg was competent but not a musical genius. Competence can get you only so far without inspiration. Dvorak wrote nine symphonies; a few of them are played regularly, but some of them are not, and for good reason. Brahms wrote four symphonies, each a supreme masterpiece, each played with regularity (although conductors are less likely to favor the 3rd because it is the most difficult to “bring off” and doesn’t end with the kind of rousing finish that whips up the applause of the audience.)


Last night, there was applause after each movement of each piece. My regular concert-going companion found this disturbing, arguing that it was an intrusion into the continuity of pieces that were designed as multi-movement works. I couldn’t agree with him. During the nineteenth century, applause after movements was customary, and most composers would have been quite disappointed by its absence. (Indeed, in the 1790s, when Joseph Haydn’s late symphonies received their London premieres, contemporary press accounts mention that at times applause after a movement was so vociferous that the movement would be encored before proceeding to the next!). The idea of dead silence after a first movement of a symphony, which became customary by the mid-20th century, is totally unnatural if the first movement – as many do – ends in a blaze of glory with emphatic loud chords from the full orchestra. Silence at the end of the first movement of Brahms’s 4th is emotionally inappropriate, in my view. That ending calls out for an emotional release of approval from the audience. And if the second movement is gorgeous – as it truly is—the audience’s appreciation expressed in applause is totally appropriate. Beethoven, for one, knew how to prevent applause if he didn’t want it to break things up: just link movements, as he did with the last two in the 5th, the last three in the 6th, or the last two in the 5th Piano Concerto, or direct the conductor to start the next movement virtually without a break, as he does in the 4th Piano Concerto. Otherwise, applause should be welcomed, as it was before historicism and scholasticism so pervaded the symphony concert experience that novices feared to go because they are afraid of embarrassing themselves by applauding at the wrong time. . .