Saturday, December 13, 2014

American Symphony Orchestra - Requiem for the 20th Century - 12/10/14

Conductor: Leon Botstein
Williams: Symphony No. 6
Ligeti: Requiem
Sara Murphy: Mezzo-soprano
Jennifer Zetlan: Soprano
Bard Festival Chorale
Schnittke: Nagasaki
Sara Murphy: Mezzo-soprano
Bard Festival Chorale

When American Symphony Orchestra's music director and principal conductor Leon Botstein greeted us with "Welcome to my holiday concert!" on Wednesday night at Carnegie Hall, he generated quite a few chuckles. And understandably so, because if the time of year was right on, and our first light snow fall earlier in the day proved it, the program was more than a bit off with three very different but equally dark, challenging and essential compositions by Ralph Vaughan Williams, Gyorgy Ligeti and Alfred Schnittke.
While being a fundamentally laudable endeavor ‒ keeping music lovers on their toes is a tough job, but somebody's got to do it ‒ boldly going against the current nevertheless has its drawbacks, and the mostly empty balcony of the Stern Auditorium was one of them. On the other hand, the rest of the space was filled by an obviously dedicated audience that could not wait for the not-to-be-missed experience. We had some heavy stuff ahead of us for sure, but it had to be heard.

Although Ralph Vaughan Williams reputedly asserted that his sixth symphony had nothing to do with World War II, or anything else for that matter, but should only be appreciated as pure music, the claim is hard to believe, and not just for the fact that he wrote it during and right after the war, but also because it so forcefully expresses the violence and destruction suffered in troubled times. Accordingly, on Wednesday night, chaos and gloom quickly descended upon us with all their might, but there was also the occasional distraction such as a high-spirited scherzo here and a jazzy solo saxophone there. The last movement, completely colorless and expressionless, had us all drift into an existential nothingness that would have made Sartre envious. This was serious music, but Williams did not shy away from making it accessible as well.
For the second stop on our depressing but enlightening tour, we were plunged into Gyorgy Ligeti's haunting Requiem. For better or worse, the piece became world-famous for being featured in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, and amazingly enough had never been performed in its entirety in New York before Wednesday. Granted, we still did not have the double chorus and huge orchestra that the Hungarian composer had in mind for it, but Botstein quipped that he was not holding his breath for that, so we did with what we had. Being a holocaust survivor, Ligeti used his harrowing personal experience to create a unique work of emotional directness and musical complexity. The orchestra was accompanied by the fearless Bard Festival Chorale, mezzo-soprano Sara Murphy, whose poised and majestic singing had a mesmerizing effect, and soprano Jennifer Zetlan, whose visceral performance could not have been further away from her delightful turn as Mozart in The Classical Style less than a week earlier. As for Ligeti's signature "micropolyphony" and its famed vertiginous effect, I felt like I was listening to a community of dead people relate the horrors they had been through and the depth of their grief. It was seriously chilling.
After a much needed intermission, we had one more work to go in the US première of Alfred Schnittke's Nagasaki, which was the composer's graduation thesis from The Moscow Conservatory in 1958 and finally had its public première in its original form in Cape Town in 2006, eight years after Schnittke's death. Better late than never. Inspired by Russian and Japanese poets, influenced by Shostakovich, Stravinsky and Orff, the oratorio immediately strikes the listener by its big, appealing sounds that compellingly convey the exotic land of Japan, the senseless dropping of the bomb, its dreadful consequences on humanity, and finally renewed hope. A lot of the score's undeniable appeal rests upon the intensity of the instrumental score and the gripping parts for the chorus and the mezzo-soprano, which the orchestra, the Bard Festival Chorale and Sara Murphy handled deftly. And then the explosive grand finale brought a new peaceful beginning. Maybe the program was not that far off the holiday spirit after all.

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