The Botstein Problem

by Sedgwick Clark

Just the other night a colleague was saying how much we owe Leon Botstein for programming rarely (and often never) heard music. Nonetheless, my friend was nowhere to be seen at the conductor’s Sunday afternoon pairing of two 70-minute Romantic behemoths at Carnegie Hall with the American Symphony Orchestra: Busoni’s sole piano concerto and Liszt’s A Faust Symphony. Then there was the critic last August who replied that he loved the composer too much when I asked why he didn’t attend Botstein’s “Sibelius and His World” concerts at Bard College’s summer music festival.

One can understand both. One looks at Botstein’s invariably enticing, over-rich programs from a distance, licking one’s lips at the proffered smorgasbord, but in the end usually wishing the conductor had been more mindful of his players’ and his own capabilities. My first friend missed a strong reading of the Busoni and a perfunctory, inadequately rehearsed Faust; the second an excellent, sensitively shaded Sibelius Fourth and a shockingly played Third. One just never knows what to expect.

One can venture a pretty good guess, however, when an intellectually inspired program such as the Busoni-Liszt pairing meets current economics. Both pieces require short choral sections and soloists—a virtuoso pianist (the dexterous Piers Lane) in the former and a tenor (the sweet-toned Ryan MacPherson) in the latter. But even the greatest of orchestras and conductors require intensive rehearsal for two hours and twenty minutes of Romantic soul searching that few of the players could have previously encountered, and it was clear that the Liszt got short shrift. Moreover, Botstein’s impatient pacing of Liszt’s slower tempos indicated more of an eye on the clock and the damnation of overtime than a sympathetic interpreter. Go to the Beecham and Bernstein recordings for total conviction.

Botstein has been music director of the American Symphony for 19 years. Basically a pickup orchestra, it has performed mainly at Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center in New York City and in the summer at Bard College’s Summerscape festival, which the conductor (who is also president of the college) founded in 1990. Its imaginative programming of orchestral, chamber, and solo music is centered on a single composer each year and includes works by other composers who influenced him and whom he, in turn, influenced. A lavish, beautifully printed  program booklet, containing essays, art, and photos, is available at no cost, and a full-fledged book of essays may be purchased by those desiring further immersion into the composer’s world. Add the extra-musical opportunity to explore one of the Hudson Valley’s most attractive terrains, Annandale-on-Hudson, and you have a pair of memorable weekends.

I hadn’t been to a Bard summer festival since 2005, even for such favorite composers as Elgar, Prokofiev, and Berg, but I couldn’t resist Sibelius and His World. Seems the regulars couldn’t either, for nearly all the orchestral concerts in the 900-seat Frank Gehry-designed Richard B. Fisher Hall appeared sold out, and the 400-seat Olin Hall chamber-music recitals were respectfully full too.

Ever since Fisher Hall’s opening night in 2003, with the ASO playing Mahler’s Third Symphony, Botstein encouraged the orchestra to play full force throughout, which may work in New York’s 2,800-seat Avery Fisher or Carnegie halls but was painful above forte at Bard. The only Botstein performance I recall with pleasure in this hall was a sensitively conducted Appalachian Spring suite in Copland’s original 13-instrument chamber version in 2005.

What a surprise, then, in the gruff introduction of the first weekend’s opening work, Finlandia, that the brass were commanding, not excruciating. As this all-Sibelius evening progressed, I savored the orchestral sound as never before in this hall—the sprightly woodwinds, burnished brass, and tonally ingratiating, if not always precise, strings. I don’t know when Botstein began holding back the ASO musicians in Fisher Hall, but one can now look forward to their playing at Bard.

Botstein’s performances are presentations rather than interpretations. It was said of Alfred Hitchcock that he enjoyed the planning of his films but was less interested in the actual process of filming. That may have been a façade, and it may be with Botstein as well. No one could doubt that he is committed to the music and wants to communicate with his audiences. Still, he would do well to consider what impression his podium demeanor creates. Avoidance of showmanship or outward display of emotion is one thing, but he drags onto the stage as if he would rather be anywhere else. At the end of a performance he lets his hands drop to his side as if nothing of import had occurred, makes a curt bow, turns, and slumps off. In nearly every performance I heard this summer, the polite applause stopped instantly the moment he disappeared from view. Perhaps this cool response validates his self image as a “serious” musician. But make no mistake, an audience craves confirmation that what it has heard matters, and if the performer behaves like a stage hand, the music, the composer, and the audience will be short-changed, no matter how expert the performance.

He seems especially engaged in the works involving choruses and those with soloists. In the all-Sibelius program that opened with Finlandia, he and the orchestra were attentive partners to violinist Henning Kraggerud’s rustic projection of four of the six Humoresques, Opp. 87 and 89, and to soprano Christiane Libore, whose impressive voice was never overwhelmed in that spooky ten-minute tone poem Luonnotar. The two symphonies fared less well. Imagine if the rehearsal time for the disastrous Third, mentioned above, had been devoted to the Fifth, which followed? The monumental Fifth is far more difficult to bring off, and while it received a more successful performance than the Third, its elemental wonderment and power were never suggested. An interesting thing happened at the symphony’s conclusion, which ends with six fortissimo, widely spaced chords. Botstein obviously had rehearsed his players to a tee. He actually looked involved, and he achieved powerful, purposeful, precise results.

The composer’s early choral symphony, Kullervo, revealed Botstein at his best, vigorously in control of the orchestra, two soloists, and an all-male chorus. Brimming with memorable Sibelian melodies and imbued with youthful energy, Kullervo tells of a vengeful Finnish folk hero who seduces his long-lost sister and finally falls on his sword out of guilt. (This is a hero?) Other notable Sibelius performances by Botstein were The Swan of Tuonela, The Oceanides, and the Seventh Symphony. The latter was part of my favorite program of the season: Sibelius, Tapiola; Barber, Symphony No. 1; Vaughan Williams, Symphony No. 5; Sibelius, Symphony No. 7. Come to think of it, one of my favorite programs of all time.

A final note: Bard’s is the oldest audience I’ve ever seen—far older even than the Philadelphia Orchestra’s at Carnegie Hall. Observing the aged upstate males negotiating the cement steps in the steeply raked auditorium was frightening; fortunately, they had their sturdier wives guiding them. And the kids? They were spilling out of a tent not far away, their rock music proudly declaring their vote. A portent, perhaps, for the festival’s future.

Virtuoso Prokofiev from Yale

A two-concert marathon of Prokofiev’s nine piano sonatas, played by Yale University students of Boris Berman, was a highlight of the season so far. Given these young artists’ technical perfection and obvious commitment, it was difficult to imagine the composer being better served. For a mere $10 a ticket, this was a bargain of many a year.

Hearing such impressive performances live in concert banished any comparisons with the memorable recordings by Richter, Gilels, Horowitz, or Berman himself. It seems unfair to single out any of these talented pianists, but Henry Kramer in the Sixth Sonata and Esther Park in the Ninth were especially successful in investing these fingerbusters with expressive character, and Larry Weng’s torrid attack on the well-known Seventh fully realized “the anguish and struggle of the war years” referred to by Berman in his insightful program notes.

The two concerts (with an hour between for dinner), at Weill Recital Hall, instantly lifted the gloom engendered by Botstein’s immediately preceding Liszt next door.

Program 1:

Sonata No. 1, Op. 1 – Naomi Woo

Sonata No. 2, Op. 14 – Euntaek Kim

Sonata No. 5 (second version), Op. 135 – David Fung

Sonata No. 9, Op. 103 – Esther Park

Sonata No. 4, Op. 29 – Scott MacIsaac

Program 2:

Sonata No. 8, Op. 84 – Lee Dionne

Sonata No. 7, Op. 83 – Larry Weng

Sonata No. 3, Op. 28 – Melody Quah

Sonata No. 6, Op. 82 – Henry Kramer

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