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Botstein in Nighttown

New York
Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
10/06/2010 -  
Dialogues and Extensions: James Joyce
George Antheil: Ballet mécanique
Othmar Schoeck: Lebendig begraben (“Buried Alive”), Opus 40 (From poems by Hans Keller) (American premiere)
Mátyás Seiber: Ulysses (Based on Ithaca from James Joyce’s Ulysses) (American premiere)

John Hancock (Baritone), Christian Reinert (Tenor)
The Collegiate Chorale Singers, James Bagwell (Director), American Symphony Orchestra, Leon Botstein (Music Director and Conductor)

L. Botstein (© Richard Termine)

Two centuries before Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, G.F. Handel composed music to those most prescient words from Messiah: “Read Joyce,” he penned, “Read Joyce greatly, o daughters of Zion.”

Obviously that most polymath-odical conductor, Leon Botstein, has read Joyce, and probably everything else. Moving his American Symphony Orchestra from Avery Fisher Hall to Carnegie Hall, hasn’t moved his almost obsessional search to find the most unusual music from the usual composers or the most unusual composers to prove whatever theme has in mind.

Last night it was James Joyce. Most other conductors might take some of Joyce’s favorite opera arias, or a medley of Berio’s songs (or even parts of his opera on Odysseus, with homages to Joyce), maybe even the Harry Partch pieces from Finnegans Wake.

But no. Maestro Botstein programmed one composer who Joyce admired; one long monody which Joyce heard and liked; and another long work for tenor and chorus by a Hungarian composer totally new to just about everybody…except Mr. Botstein.

James Joyce had planned to write an opera with George Antheil, but this never panned out. Instead, Antheil, once the “bad boy of music” is known for a single work (besides his inventions ) and many of us were anxious to hear his Ballet mécanique. But this piece, originally for pianos, percussion and two airplane propellers has lost its energy over the past 90-odd years, and Mr. Botstein did nothing to revive it. When I heard this conducted by James Levine in the cellars of Cooper Union some years ago, it still had the power to stun, to drive bullets into the head for its sheer audacity.

Levine included buzzers, auto horns, noisy propellers and energy. Mr. Botstein eliminated the propellers (the snare drums and timpani did a reasonable simulacrum), and conducted with pristine, almost genteel elegance. Rhythmical, clever, meticulously performed work which could have been composed and then discarded by Varèse.

The next piece was the biggest surprise, since composer Othmar Schoeck was already performed a few days ago by the Ensemble du Monde. Summer Nights was a very proper string piece, composed with a deft, cold hand. Not the music which James Joyce would enjoy.

Buried Alive, though, was exactly what the title signified. A ghoulish, horrifying series of our worst nightmare. Not symbolic nightmare, but 45 minutes starting with “gruesome rolling of rocks and bones lying seven feet deep” to “measuring out with probing hands my tomb” to hyenas attacking the poet where he wrestles with them……etc etc.

Very much a Germanic expressionist dream, and one which the previously effete Mr. Schoeck tackled with energy, color, amazing orchestration (I was reminded of that other testament to the soil, Song of the Earth), and a series of connected songs.

They were sung by baritone John Hancock with more than conviction. He made this buried-alive body emotionally alive, his rich voice going through the tragedy, reaching out with lyrical roundness. It says a lot for Mr. Botstein and the ASO that they never drowned out Mr. Hancock, but proceeded with wonders of loud almost fantastical music.

Granted, one got tired of the poems, which were more disgusting than gruesome. But they certainly lifted up Mr. Schoek’s reputation. Joyce, who based his last novel very much on a dead body (frequently revived) would have found a commonality with the theme, and the ravishing music might have awakened his post-romantic soul.

Incidentally, Mr. Botstein writes in the introduction that Othmar Schoeck “was clearly Switzerland’s finest 20th Century composer.” Clearly no. Methinks the admirers of Frank Martin would hardly see the clarity in that remark.

Onto the most obscure composer of all, Mátyás Seiber, a Hungarian Jew working in Frankfurt, who escaped to England when the Nazis took power. Seibert was killed in a car crash when only 55 years old, but Ligeti composed his famous Atmosphères for the composer.

Mr. Botstein used orchestra, that fine tenor Christian Reinert, and the Collegiate Chorale to produce almost 45 minutes based on a few lines from “Ithaca”, where Bloom and Dedalus go out to the “heaventree” of a garden. Complex questions are asked and answered with equal complexity. Yet in the original chapter, the imagery of “the moon invisible in incipient lunation”, of “immeasurably remote eons to infinitely remote futures”, “abatement of wind, transit of shadow, taciturnity of winged creatures...”...all is part of the infinite greatness of the author.

Can one really put this into music? I don’t think so. Berio set some Joyce poems to music, but the epic of Ulysses stands by itself. Yet Mátyás Seiber made a great effort, alternating tenor and orchestra, choral works and offstage voices, to try and make it come alive.

If one heard only the music, it would resemble much of Holst and “serious” Walton in their large pieces. Seiber loved Baroque forms, and he created fine fugues, and one passacaglia, some based on tone-rows. It did have its beautiful moments.

But looking at the Joyce words, one realizes that it was a stillborn effort. The performance was magnificent, the composition a noble effort. But Joyce was too much the master of history, philosophy, linguistics and humanity to be Bachsed in by chorus, singer and orchestra.

Harry Rolnick



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