Spring Breaks, Musical Rests: The Bard College Conservatory of Music, Sunday April 4, 2009

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Edward Elgar, In the South (“Alassio”), Op. 50
George Perle, Concerto No. 1 for Piano and Orchestra
Gustav Mahler, Symphony No. 4 in G Major

Melvin Chen, Piano
Dawn Upshaw, Soprano
The Bard College Conservatory Orchestra
Leon Botstein, Conductor

Alassio, on the gulf of Genoa
Alassio, on the gulf of Genoa, where Sir Edward Elgar vacationed

A warm and radiant Sunday during Spring Break might be a perfect setting for many sinful pleasures afforded to youth full of talent and vigor. Flaunting their musical physiques while engaging in a suite of strenuous works, students of the Bard College Conservatory showed little restraint in proving their almost visceral mastery. All was done with distinction, appropriate bravura, and only a bit of swagger. The selections themselves were felicitous indulgences by their respective composers: Mahler’s Fourth is the lightest and least dour of his symphonies; Elgar’s poem is a paean to southern voluptuousness (and, as well, a tribute to the tone poems of his contemporary, Richard Strauss); and George Perle’s Concerto shows how much the waking dodecaphonic theorist could dream in Ravel in his later years.  It was a “playful” afternoon, with so much young talent to admire that the occasional boisterous interpretation seemed completely in line with the mood of the day. Celebrating the spirit in beautiful sounds was as fitting a ceremony as I could imagine on such a stunning Easter Sunday. The presence of performing genius, such as that of Melvin Chen or Dawn Upshaw, made the day even more celebratory. Leon Botstein’s direction allowed these young performers to shine and impress both as individuals performers – since the three pieces sported many solo passages – and, as well, as a polished, cohesive ensemble.

Elgar’s In the South, while almost painfully derivative of Strauss’s tone poems (Don Juan, in particular) and of some of Brahms’s signature harmonic sequences, was, nevertheless, uniquely Elgar in the end, and hugely entertaining. Elgar himself described the work’s inspiration as an impression of sights, sounds, and historic events evoked during his stay in Alassio, on the gulf of Genoa. While Elgar clearly modeled the texture, instrumentation, and melodic arches on the work of his German contemporary, there were many unique touches. The modern and ominous-sounding pesante march, undoubtedly suggesting, as Elgar wrote, “the conflict of the armies on that very spot long ago, where I now stood,” contrasts in strong relief to Strauss’s oeuvre. Much of the color of the Elgar turns out to be a blend of German and French Romantic influences. However, the most endearing and memorable parts are the famous, extended viola solo, followed by a shorter horn solo. Both were breathtakingly performed by Conservatory members, Shuangshuang Liu and Daniel Severson. Mr. Botstein carefully prepared the climax in which a great swell of orchestral color and intensity brings the work to an impressive and rousing finish.

Composer George Perle
George Perle

George Perle’s Piano Concerto is, surprisingly, centered squarely in the classical tradition. One could say that the presence of serial techniques was hardly noticeable – if that might be construed as a compliment. Much of the impulse here, as well as the highly idiomatic piano writing, came from France: gleanings from the neoclassical Ravel Concerto in G-Major, and, also, the rhythmic and textural world of Olivier Messiaen’s music. While the “pitch decisions” and partitioning of “pitch classes” were in line with Second Vienna School doxology, much of the great appeal of this work comes, as in the Elgar, from the South, like a warm, sensual undercurrent.

The soloist, Melvin Chen, who teaches at Bard, is something of a musical and intellectual wonder. He mounted the athletic challenges of the concerto’s sheer drive, but never burdened it with a turgid, all-too-common “modernist” approach. Hyperbole was absent, legatos were tastefully applied. He kept the textures light and flexible, which helped the listener to perceive the work’s classical structure and occasional humor, especially in the Scherzo.

The opening Allegro, with a jittery, tentative, staccato initial piano motive, uses parallel octaves, following the piano idiom typical of, say Beethoven or Schubert. The use of such octaves in the Classical and Early Romantic traditions is a means of both fortifying a treble melody and coloring the melodic line, as when an organ (or harpsichord) registration doubles a voice at the octave. However, Perle cleverly finesses such colorist and dynamic techniques into a series of orchestral responses reminiscent of Messiaen’s signature parallel chords, thumping and marching down descending scale intervals. A second subject, lyric and string-infused, also draws upon classical models, but winds up, as well, through some unexpected sleight-of-hand, in another composer’s sound world. What started as a subtle and classically proportioned interplay unexpectedly morphs into Siegfried’s Forest Murmurs. Given Messiaen’s fascination with Wagner, I’m not surprised; but, arriving there from Perle takes some real conjuring. The Adagio, another classically lyric dialogue with piano and orchestra, was very evocative, as mentioned above, of the middle movement of Ravel’s great G-Major concerto: a prolonged unaccompanied piano solo, reflective and with a touch of melancholy, predominates until the strings gently enter.

The final Allegro was the only movement that sported the splintery texture that is the serial world’s signature. It was almost as if Perle had deconstructed the traditional classical concerto style, indulged in evocations of the sound worlds of others, and now felt the need for his more accustomed idiom: oscillating semitones, ninths, leaps, and colorful yawps. Perle, here, I think, was not taking himself seriously, as the work seems to end mid-stream, leaving us waiting for a coda, a cadenza, or some familiar artifact of a classical grand finale. Once again, Perle treated us to something typically modern: a deconstructed finale. This work shared much with the Elgar in the way a composer attempts to navigate around formidable models and influences that are simply ineluctable, while at the same time conversing with these traditions, finding fresh and original things to say, inter alia.

Mahler’s Fourth Symphony is the least encumbered of Mahler’s symphonies. While it has its fair share of cynicism, it is unusually quiescent, lyric, texturally lucid, and emotionally disarming. As Nietzsche said of Bizet’s Carmen (in opposition to Wagner), “it doesn’t sweat.” Almost chamber-like in texture, the work splits the eardrums only once or twice, and rather gently at that. It’s rife with Viennese nostalgia, and lacks Mahler’s tragic undertows that obsessively mourn the loss of insouciance and innocence. There are many wonderful solo passages here for young players to crack their chops on. Mr. Botstein’s tempos throughout were, as is his wont, apace with precious little dwelling on anticipations or transitions from one section to the next. However, his approaching the Fourth this way, so ingenuously unencumbered and in keeping with the spirit of these young players, gave one a sense of buoyancy that one rarely associates with Mahler. The solos were played with youthful abandon (especially, again, by horn soloist Daniel Severson) and utter confidence. The concluding movement, a setting of the song Das himmlische Leben, taken from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, attempts to express heavenly bliss from a child’s guileless, but, at times, haunted perspective of the loss of our quotidian selves. Soprano Dawn Upshaw imparted the sweet and bittersweet nuances of this work with her characteristically fluid, focused, and enchanting voice. Mr. Botstein, his youthful band, and Ms. Upshaw received a well-deserved standing ovation.

This was an Easter Sunday in the tradition of Wallace Stevens’s “Sunday Morning” with its praise of the gospel of humankind, eternal beauty in the acts of creation, and the possibility of a celebratory transcendence beyond those “Sunday mourning” rituals steeped in dogma and purblind devotion. Young musicians, springing to their Art, beyond the confines of the academy, are avatars of the ameliorative potential of performances of great music. After a concert like this, one has real hope for a rebirth of sanity in this tilted and bent world.

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