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The Impossible Dream of War

New York
Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
02/25/2011 -  
The Music of Spain: Composers of the Civil War
Joaquín Turina: Sinfonía sevillana, Opus 23
Roberto Gerhard: Don Quixote – Symphony No 4 “New York”
Manuel de Falla: Homenajes

American Symphony Orchestra, Leon Botstein (Conductor)

J. Turina (©Public Domain)

Exactly 24 hours before this concert, Benjamin Britten’s agonizing homage to the Loyalist defeat in the Spanish Civil War, his Violin Concerto, was given a very moving performance by Janine Jansen with the New York Philharmonic.

Ironically, that work by a politically sensitive young British composer was far more poignant than the three composers represented in Leon Botstein’s questionably titled “Composers of the Civil War.” Yes, the three composers lived during the Civil War, abroad or in Spain. But while they privately hinted at the terrifying conflict privately not a single one made any attempt at a musical Guernica or For Whom The Bell Tolls or even Britten’s Concerto.

The trio chosen here were deft to varying degrees, clever or cerebral, all of them using Spanish themes. They were certainly aware of the war which tore their country apart. Turina yielded to the honors given by Franco, de Falla, shocked by the murder of his friend Federico García Lorca moved to Argentina, while Roberto Gerhard, took a stand against the conflict and moved to England.

But no great war work came from their hands.

Still, when Leon Botstein chooses a theme for his American Symphony Orchestra, he creates the most marvelous written rationales in his essays. For this concert, he delved deeply into the roots of the conflict (all the way to the expulsion of Moors and Jews), he explained the position of the Church back to Ignatius Loyola and hinted at how these composers tried to express their Spanish identity.

His essay was followed by another annotator, writing about everything from Franco’s musical tastes (Renaissance), to questions about de Falla’s sexual proclivities (nothing proven). The program contained a wealth of information but little about the music to be performed.

For two of the works, no explanation was necessary. Joaquín Turina was historically important to the use of folk music in Italian “serious” music, but his pieces sound old-fashioned today. His Sinfonía sevillana has a pleasantly Impressionst feel, and some pretty melodies, but it was hardly a moving opening.

On the other hand, Manuel de Falla’s less popular pieces reveal a brilliant soul, and his final work, an homages to four composers, is short and entrancing. From the fanfare to the very Spanish-sounding homages to Debussy and Dukas, to the longer finale for teacher, Felipe Pedrell, this was gorgeous music.

Unhappily, Mr. Botstein is not the right conductor for such vivacious sounds. The ASO is fine for heavier Central Europe music, but the lilt, the lightness, the electricity for Iberia lay flat on the ground. Mr. Botstein’s hands achieved a literal niceness to the music. Missing were either emotions or spirit.

That shouldn’t have prevented two pieces by Roberto Gerhard, a composer who reflected so many personalities. His Swiss-Alsatian heritage, his allegiance to Catalonia, his study with Schoenberg has given us many varied work, all too rarely played here.

Some, like his own symphony to Predrell, are simple, highly enjoyable. But the Fourth Symphony (called “New York” because it had been commissioned by the Philharmonic in 1967), is anything but easy. The preponderance of the audience, never having heard this–and without a single word in the program how to approach the work–were plainly baffled.

This bafflement was for two reasons. First, Gerhard had constructed a work of dazzling complexity. Less an orchestral work, it relies on continuing changes of small groups of instruments, with punctilious percussion tattoos, with no tonal relationships to depend on, it has a bleak, even unlikeable landscape alien to a “Spanish” program. (Though perhaps an allusion to his estrangement in a foreign country.)

Second, I have heard recordings of the work which relied on tension, outbursts of Catalan sounds, drops into Stygian darkness, with shafts of Spanish light again.

Mr. Botstein plumbed none of this. His performance last night was literal, meticulous, he cued carefully, was certain that everybody played correctly. Yet I for one never heard Roberto Gerhard. I heard notes and chords and counterpoint. Music was omitted.

The other Gerhard work should have been better, but only worse. This was his “popular” ballet, Don Quixote, with “clearly defined interrelated episodes apt for dancing.”

¿Eh ¿Qué

That is fine if one is familiar with the ballet, but the pictures produced in a well-disguised atonal row, were certainly not apparent to this listener or to others. It was 39 minutes of continuous music with a good beat for ballet dancers but nothing on which one could hold.

Was Mr. Botstein tilting at windmills in this concert? Not quite. But in trying to give us Roberto Gerhard unadorned, with no roadmap and no particular affinity for the music, one felt the concert to be as alien as a Spanish composer condemned to an alien British wasteland.

Harry Rolnick



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