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New York
Avery Fisher Hall
05/10/2002 -  
Vagn Holmboe: Symphony # 8
Wilhelm Stenhammar: Piano Concerto # 2
Jean Sibelius: Symphony # 7

Mari Kodama (piano)
American Symphony Orchestra
Leon Botstein (conductor)

There has been a disturbing trend in concert programming over the last dozen years or so based on the flawed assumption that audiences will no longer be attracted to presentations that contain only straightforward renditions of the classics. What I have dubbed the “poetry and pottery” school of artistic executive has taken over many venues in New York, reinforcing a common prejudice that serious music is the exclusive province of the clubwoman and dowager. More and more events seem to combine art music with intrusive subtexts of exposed love letters, carelessly mismatched readings of snippets from the literary world, puppet shows or crafts demonstrations. The bottom line being the bottom line, at most of these mutations that I have attended, I should mention that I have not often been surrounded by big crowds. Like rock and roll in church, the concept simply doesn’t compute.

The one welcomed exception to the rule of pure music is scholarship. Classical music is a foreign subject for most Americans, thanks to the shameful abdication of the public school system, and one part of the mission of all socially responsible schedulers, that is not antithetical to putting the derrieres in the seats, is at least a bit of self-perpetuating education. A good vehicle is the pre-concert lecture, now standard equipment for many of the season’s most striking evenings. Richard Wilson, composer in residence at the American Symphony Orchestra, consistently fills the Kaplan Penthouse at Lincoln Center with his entertaining and well thought out talks explaining the adventurous repertoire of his employers (in fact, I often enjoy the lectures even more than the concerts). Mr. Wilson has discovered just the right lost chord, a combination of relevant information, good humor (he once began a talk on ethnicity by apologizing for not having any) and cultural insight, with not even a hint (this is of paramount importance) of condescension. But his popularity is unusual; most of these public ruminations are rather poorly attended (they conflict, after all, with that most vital part of the total experience, the pre-concert dinner).

The best method for educating an audience is the integration of didacticism into the event itself. Leon Botstein, whose original concept of thematic programming is now de riguer for many New York musical evenings, consistently presents thought- provoking combinations of the rare and the familiar to an audience eager to both enjoy and learn. Last night was the turn of the music of Scandinavia and featured the one composer who immediately leaps to mind in concert with two who hide in the darkest passageways of the fjords.

Mr. Wilson’s analysis of the Sibelius 7 was fascinating, including his revelation of the role of the Valse triste in its construction. The piece is one of the very greatest achievements in the cannon of 20th century music and was, apparently, planned to be the initial entrant in a new genre, dubbed by the composer as the fantasia sinfonica. The only Scandinavian country not represented on last evening’s program was Norway, but Sibelius’ thirty year retirement after this work puts one in mind of John Gabriel Borkman, begging the question as to whether the Finnish genius, who could so profoundly communicate his internal ability to see color correspondent to musical tone, spent his last three unproductive decades in alcohol-besotted frustration or forgetfulness. The ASO performance was especially sensitive, in Botstein’s capable hands the orchestral writing often sounding like chamber music. This was a gentle reading, with clarity of individual lines rare in ensemble play. Certainly the drama was present, but never overwhelming. In the same special way that the sextet from Strauss’ Capriccio is so arresting, this rendition was indeed one to savor. The washes of sound were more of a pastel hue, the surprising (and surprisingly quick) ending exclamatory and crisply defined.

The remainder of the concert was less satisfying. Wilson took the trouble to consult a Danish-speaking colleague and revealed to us that Vagn Holmboe should be pronounced with each letter distinct (and with a ‘y’ sound between what looks like an ending diphthong) but I found his music to be rather superficial, at least on a first hearing. The symphony, although well played, amounted to a rather predictable travelogue featuring some interesting time signature juxtapositions but seemingly little substance. The Stenhammar, on the other hand, is a work of considerable weight. This neglected composer, whose six string quartets are personal favorites of mine, was a renowned concert pianist (a Brahms concerto specialist) who fashioned two large-scale works for his instrument and orchestra for his own appearances in Sweden. I was looking forward to this performance for a year, but found little to recommend it as the pianist seemed incapable of making the grand gesture so necessary to pull off this eloquent romanticism. Mari Kodama did not appear comfortable with the piece and fumbled several times with the music in front of her, never even approaching its emotional center in this hesitant and unacceptably inaccurate rendering. Stenhammar, unfortunately, was not Brahms and so the orchestral accompaniment is not the most sophisticated, leaving little to praise in this tepid version.

Still, the evening was a success on several meaningful levels. Although I was not inspired by the Holmboe, I conversed with people at intermission who were and what chance would they have ever had to be introduced to his music without the American Symphony and its educational mission (I had a similar epiphany with the music of Egon Wellesz at an ASO concert earlier this season)? The Sibelius was a wonderful performance, rivaling the Sawallisch Philadelphia one that I heard during their centennial year. And it is important to resurrect the Stenhammar, one of two of his compositions that need a strong champion, even if this entrant was not it. So many nights at the plaza are so forgettable; those of the American Symphony always seem to remain in the memory for their instructive value, intrepidity and palpable sense of integrity.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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