Music Director & Conductor: Leon Botstein
Schuller: Seven Studies on Themes of Paul Klee
Sophia Burgos: Soprano
Muhly: Seeing is Believing
Tracy Silverman: Electric Violin
Strauss: Also sprach Zarathustra, Op. 30
Interestingly enough, on Friday evening my return to Carnegie Hall for the first time this season was for a concert that was not part of their official program, although it was performed by one of the notable local orchestras regularly visiting the Stern Auditorium. As it was, the American Symphony Orchestra and its always probing music director Leon Botstein were presenting "Mimesis: Musical Representations", another typically ambitious program exploring the complex and fascinating connections among music, words and images with the help of an eclectic group of composers that included Gunther Schuller, Henri Dutilleux, Nico Muhly and Richard Strauss. Not exactly light fare for a Friday night, but then again, a little intellectual stimulation before the weekend has never killed anybody.
Although Gunther Schuller is not exactly a household name, he for sure deserves to be with a resume as diverse as illustrious: Horn player, conductor, author, educator, administrator and, obviously, composer. My ignorance about Gunther Schuller was, however, counterbalanced by my bottomless devotion to Paul Klee, and his appearance on the program had more than picked my curiosity. And sure enough, the astonishing variety of the painter's œuvre was to some degree faithfully reflected in the different styles of composer's Seven Studies on Themes of Paul Klee. The diabolically fun "Little Blue Devil" came out gleefully swinging and was an outstanding example of Schuller's "third stream" practice of fusing jazz and classical music. Other highlights were the short-lived, whimsical "Abstract Trio", during which only three instruments played at a time, and the extended, atmospheric "Arab Village", whose quiet exoticism made a nevertheless powerful impression.
Commissioned by the Berlin Philharmonic in 1983 and eventually premiered in 2003 by Simon Rattle and Dawn Upshawn, Henri Dutilleux's song cycle Correspondances focuses the relations between music and words with poems from Rainer Maria Rilke and Prithwindra Mukherjee as well as letters by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Vincent Van Gogh. The orchestra handled the wide ranging nature of the texts with commendable subtlety, and if soprano Sophia Burgos was dressed in a demure full-length white lace dress, her fierce singing was anything but. The best had been kept for last, when musicians and singer went all out for a blazing description of Van Gogh's popular masterpiece La nuit étoilée.
There were also plenty of shining stars in Seeing is Believing, Nico Muhly's engaging evocation of, yes, a starry night, featuring endlessly versatile violinist Tracy Silverman and his six-string electric violin. Staying solidly front and center the entire time, the virtuosic soloist delivered a truly inspired and free-spirited performance. The orchestral accompaniment seemed to occasionally lose its way, aimlessly wandering in the vast universe at night, but everything eventually fell into place with purpose and precision.
After paintings, the written word and the cosmos, we moved back in time to philosophy with Also sprach Zarathustra. Inspired by Nietzsche's epic philosophical novel by the same name, Richard Strauss' excessively Romantic tone poem partly owes its worldwide fame to Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, which cleverly used the spontaneously gripping introduction. A firm believer that music is humankind's highest form of expression, Strauss found in Nietszche's prose the same kind of exalted thoughts and decided to put it in music for posterity. The result is a bold, dramatic and triumphant journey, which on Friday night orchestra and conductor vigorously brought to glorious life. The weekend – and my Carnegie Hall season – has started well.