Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony #1 in C-Major, Opus 21; Symphony #2 in D-Major, Opus 36
Harold Farberman: Concerto for Timpani and Orchestra (1960, revised 2002), Johathan Haas, Timpani
Shulamit Ran: Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra (“The Show Goes On”), (2008, U.S. premiere) Laura Flax, Clarinet
The American Symphony Orchestra, Leon Botstein, Music Director
Basking in the sonorous splendor of the festival this past summer, Leon Botstein and the American Symphony Orchestra are wasting no time in a reorientation of sorts – both for those on campus and for most of us who savor the cultural life on campus. At least that’s the impression one gets from Mr Botstein’s essay introducing his new two-year Beethoven cycle. That Beethoven’s symphonies are basic to the understanding of all subsequent music, including Wagner’s, is without question. The more intriguing point is that by examining Beethoven’s instrumental works we might approach the core of pure composition that can induce a dramatic subtext through musical language alone. This August we had ample demonstrations of the converse: how an extrinsic dramatic subtext can conjure a new and revolutionary musical language. Perhaps Beethoven, as exemplar of the Romantic engagement in the struggle of individual will against the determinist constraints of society, nature, and “Fate,” can be the Rosetta Stone to understanding the ambitious and variegated programming Mr Botstein offers each season.
The fare tonight was not merely Beethoven as meat and potatoes: a twentieth-century work, Harold Farberman’s Concerto for Timpani and Orchestra, was presented, as well as the U.S. premiere of Shulamit Ran’s Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra (2008). The anchoring of each contemporary work to a Beethoven symphony was an ingenious touch. In each half of the program, after experiencing the colorful and exotic palette of new works, the Beethoven works were heard in the refreshing context as reference, foundation, ancestral, or even genetic code adumbrating the new works, and, indeed, all symphonic works to come.
As this reviewer noted last month, the ASO has never sounded so polished and so thoroughly athletic in meeting the challenges that Maestro Botstein throws their way. The virtuosity required in the Faberman and Ran works, dispatched with ease, is even more astonishing considering the workout from Wednesday’s performance of Vincent d’Indy’s difficult Wagner-steeped Fervaal at Avery Fisher Hall. It must have been a much-welcomed cleansing to travel back to works rooted at the very burgeoning of the Romantic symphonic idiom.
It has been an active month for Mr Farberman, who premiered a new opera, Diamond Street, earlier this month, performed by the Diamond Opera Theater in Hudson, New York. His concerto, heard tonight, was originally composed in 1960, but was heavily revised in 2002. Mr Farberman, who started his career as a percussionist, is right at home in the sound space evoked by his concerto. The soloist, placed front and center on stage, is surrounded by seven differently pitched tympani. Besides requiring multiple mallets, brushes, and striking objects, gongs and cymbals are, at times, placed on the drums’ membranes. The effect of such manipulation produced many eerie sounds, especially in conjunction with drum glissandi made possible by judicious use of foot pedals. To the rear of the orchestra were three other percussionists with side drums, bass drums, and clangorous idiophones. These three percussion sections acted, as it were, as “brokers” or intermediaries of the soloist’s material to the orchestra proper. Although the tympani is capable of producing many unique pitches, rolling iterations, so characteristic of the kettledrum, also became thematic material exchanged with the other pitched instruments. While the tympani has trouble sustaining a note (with tremolo), the orchestra would clarify what was stated. Soloist Jonathan Hass was given a remarkable workout, quickly changing mallets and sticks, precisely adjusting the pitch pedals, and drawing unexpected expressivity from these instruments, usually relegated to underscoring orchestral climaxes. The three other percussionists, Kory Grossman, Javier Diaz, and Matthew Beaumont, deserve mention as providing the percussion concertino in the middle. The concerto was full of sonic surprises, drama, and color; Mr Farberman, who becomes an octogenarian in a couple of weeks, is attuned to the entertaining possibilities of the instruments he has mastered in six decades of professional life. While there seem to be inescapable echoes of Bartok’s Music for Strings and Percussion, Varèse’s Ionization, or even some of the thick growlings of Giacinto Scelsi, Mr Farberman’s treatment was completely novel, innovative, and engaging.
Israeli-born Shulamit Ran is considered by many to be one of finest composers of her generation. Awarded the Pulitzer in 1990 for her Symphony, she has been Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s composer-in-residence, as well as a faculty member at the University of Chicago. She has been the recipient of most major national awards. The Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra originally premiered in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem in 2008. The work’s subtitle, The Show Goes On, apparently was affixed following the death of a longtime friend and colleague, composer Jorge Liderman. Although the work is far from being a threnody, it does seem to celebrate or commemorate the remembrance of musical heritages past. Ms Ran admits to an affiliation with the clarinet, and, in her professional association with this evening’s soloist, Laura Flax, she has composed much for this instrument.
The clarinet is the great mimic of the orchestra, with its extraordinary four-plus octave range, and can suggest its unique self, or an English horn in the “chalumeau” register, or a clarino trumpet, or a flute or piccolo. Ms Ran exploits all of this, as, indeed most clarinet-loving composers have. But even more remarkable was her extension of this mimicry through thematic recall and theatrical caricature. A second clarinet, nested in the orchestra, became a haunting doppelgänger for Ms. Flax’s expositions, and, throughout, the solo material seemed to evoke familiar roles in the instrument’s past. The clarinet, whether plaintive or shrill, never seemed to stray from assuming some theatrical character. At the outset of each section, the soloist introduced key melodic motives, which would be playfully echoed, or mimicked, by the ensemble. In various transformational moments, the clarinet, as dancer, materialized in a zesty tango; at another point, the protean soloist called to mind the storied opening glissando from Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, as a riff artist in some jazz ensemble, à la Bernstein; and finally was ushered off in what sounded like a terrifying reference to Shostakovich. Ms. Flax’s performance was literally breathtaking. Her leaps from low to high, soft to loud, or from coy to terrified, were spellbinding, as was her virtuosity and musicianship.
Botstein’s Beethoven eschewed trappings of the lush and Romantic approach that many of us might expect. He wanted, it seems, as straightforward and as objective a representation as possible. By paring down the ensemble to early nineteenth-century proportions, we were permitted a level of detail and transparency that was delightful and welcome to ears jaded by recordings of the past. The brass and woodwinds especially gained prominence with fewer strings, thus demonstrating how beautiful these performers could really sound. One heard every inner voice, as if listening to Baroque rather than Classical music. While the details were held in relief, I could not say that Mr Botstein “caressed” or adoringly shaped these elements. His was a lofty approach, giving these seminal works a more poised than emotion-laden bearing. This was especially the case in the two slow movements, which could have benefited from a bit more finesse and expressive freedom. However, the menuetto and scherzo movements, especially that of the second, still linger in my memory. The best case for Mr Botstein’s approach was pleaded, for example, in the presentation of the second subject in the C-Major’s first movement: the way in which the melodic cells were tossed about with such clarity, was, for me, a new-found enchantment. Since these two works were composed on the very cusp of the nineteenth-century, Mr Botstein properly sees these pieces as emerging romantic works, still to be treated with a more Classical touch. Reaching out to new listeners, Mr Botstein is not catering to those old enough to have collected these symphonies on disc by immortals like Walter, Toscanini, Klemperer, Karajan, Böhm, or Kleiber. While it makes sense to perform these works with a minimum of interpretative baggage, one can’t help but wonder how much of what we have loved in these recordings springs from the music alone, or an incandescent baton. Next on the list, the first great Romantic symphony, the Eroica, will provide clues to the innateness of Beethoven’s passion.