Leon Botstein and the ASO with Bard Conservatory Students Triumph in Brahms, Saint-Saëns, Ibert, and Dvorak at Bard’s Fisher Center

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The American Symphony Orchestra, Leon Botstein, conductor
Bard College, Fisher Center, Sosnoff Theater
Friday, September 14 and Saturday, September 15, 2007

Brahms, Academic Festival Overture
Saint-Saëns, Piano Concerto No. 5 in F major, Op. 103 (“Egyptian”)
Soloist: Shun-Yang Lee, piano
Ibert, Four Songs of Don Quixote
Soloist: Yohan Yi, baritone

Dvorak, Symphony No. 9 in E minor, Op. 95 (“From the New World”)

It seems particularly felicitous that this first concert review in The Berkshire Review for the Arts celebrates the very fine performances of two young musicians, who are not far from the very beginning of their careers. Pianist Shun-Yang Lee from Taipei, Taiwan, is a student of Melvin Chen and Peter Serkin at the Bard Conservatory of Music, and Korean baritone Yohan Yi is also a Bard Conservatory student. Lee performed this weekend as winner of the Second Annual Bard Conservatory Concerto Competition, and Yi recently performed at the Weill Recital Hall of Carnegie Hall in the Golijov/Upshaw Young Artists concert. This was a great evening for seasoned musicians as well. Leon Botstein led the American Symphony Orchestra in a thoroughly Brahmsian performance of the Academic Festival Overture and a truly revelatory reading of Dvorak’s Symphony “From the New World.”

The clear, vivid acoustics of Sosnoff auditorium encouraged transparent textures and and the full revelation of Brahms’ inner voices, which Botstein exploited by deliberate tempi and crisp articulation. The ASO responded with energetic strings and elegant woodwinds. There was clarity in the brass section with trombones standing out, and they played the final “Gaudeamus igitur” with all the swagger one could wish. Mr. Botstein is clearly totally at home in Brahms.

Mr. Lee deserves warm commendation for selecting the interesting and less known Fifth Piano Concerto of Saint-Saëns (1896), when the second, an old warhorse, might have been a more obvious choice. The concerto begins quietly and is full of delicate sonorities and comparatively subtle passages. Its pyrotechnics only blossom in full in the last movement. It became known as the “Egyptian” concerto because of the exotic motifs and sounds in its second movement (andante, allegretto tranquillo quasi andantino), a reflection of Saint-Saëns’ fondness for North Africa and its music. It is an intriguing piece, especially the rather eccentric second movement, which trails off unexpectedly in a minor key, and Lee handled it wonderfully. In general the Chinese students at Bard seem to have a subdued and low-key way about their music-making, a very appealing trait, I find. Lee uses this to excellent effect in the Fifth Concerto, and he avoids distorting the spirit of the music with aggressive virtuosity, although he had plenty of that in reserve at the appropriate place. The audience, who gave him a standing ovation, seemed to appreciate his good taste and musicianship as much as his impressive technique. Shun-Yang Lee should have a fine career ahead of him.

The orchestra was reduced to chamber proportions for Ibert’s exquisite and moving Songs of Don Quichotte, from his score for the 1933 film by G. W. Pabst, which starred Feodor Chaliapin and therefore required something for the great Russian bass to sing. (The ailing Maurice Ravel was approached before Ibert, but his submission was rejected. Dr. Botstein was entirely responsive to the sonorities of this small group, which includes a saxophone, bass-clarinet, tuba, harpsichord, timpani, harp, and vibraphone, and provided a light, but sumptuous accompaniment for Yohan Yi’s well-knit, rich and lustrous bass-baritone. Yi’s phrasing, expressiveness, and sensitivity to the mood of each song, one of which was a setting of a poem by the sixteenth century poet Pierre de Ronsard, and the three others by Alexandre Arnoux (1884-1973). Yi’s French was adequate, except for some of his vowels. His treatment of the “Song of Don Quixote’s Death” was very moving indeed. This one performance was more than enough to suggest that we’re due for an Ibert renaissance.

The sense of discovery continued and even intensified with Leon Botstein’s reading of Antonin Dvorak’s most familiar work, in fact one of the most familiar works in the symphonic repertoire, the Symphony “from the New World.” This was primarily the result of the qualities which made the Academic Festival Overture such a success, the combination of clarity, color, and power produced by conductor, orchestra, hall acoustics, as well as Mr. Botstein’s quite individual interpretation and the orchestra’s enthusiastic playing. He took care to keep things moving during the slow introduction to the first movement. The melodic phrases were distinctly shaped, their dotted rhythms well-marked and eloquently phrased by the wind players. The string ensemble was full of energy with a wonderful full, dark sound in cellos and bass, and one could hear the strong arpeggiated attacks in all voices. The musicians were clearly listening to each other closely, and there was a chamber-music-like responsiveness in their exchanges, for example in a passage between the clarinets and strings early in the development section. Mr. Botstein observed the transition to the second subject with a strong rallentando, but he did not allow the section to drag at all. He brought the movement to a close with great energy, accellerando.

In the slow movement, once again, Botstein kept up a fairly active pace, preserving the folk-like simplicity and flow of the tune, observing well its dotted rhythms. His open ear for Dvorak’s orchestration let some remarkable effects come through, notably the interplay between clarinet and English horn. In the middle section the tonal contrasts between first and second violins (split, of course) in their dialogue were also particularly remarkable.

The scherzo benefitted greatly from the overall clarity of the playing and Mr. Botstein’s strongly marked accents, as in the accompaniment to the second subject. The famous trills evoked bird songs more literally than usual, and the violas had some great moments on their own.

The finale began with urgency and force. As in the earlier movements, the middle voices played a vital role, with violas and cellos contributing a clean, natural sound. The different instruments of the brass section, clearly distinct, came across brilliantly, and they trombones brought out the strong dissonance before the concluding bars to marvelous effect.

This was an unusual performance, obviously the product of considerable study and thought, which made this old war horse thoroughly fresh, interestingly comparable to James Levine’s brilliant achievement earlier this summer with Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony.

For Leon Botstein and the ASO’s Fisher Center Schedule, click here; for their Lincoln Center schedule, click here.

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