Tuesday, April 11, 2006

The Gathering Storm

Last Friday, I caught the American Symphony Orchestra at Avery Fisher Hall, in a concert of British music from the 1930s. The ASO plays absolutely fantastic repertory - almost all off-the-beaten-path rarities. Next year's concert series isn't on line at their Web site yet, but includes concerts entitled The Art of the Psalm, with works by Bruckner, Zemlinsky, Liszt, Schreker, and Reger; Symphonic Mexico (Revueltas, Ponce, Chavez); Uncommon Comrades (Vainberg, Shostakovich); and the American premiere (amazingly) of Schreker's opera Der ferne Klang.

Friday's concert consisted of Oration (Concerto Elegiaco), a cello concerto by Frank Bridge, Arthur Bliss's piano concerto, and Ralph Vaughn Williams's Fourth Symphony. The Bliss, with soloist Piers Lane, is virtuosic tripe; a lot of ideas that last 30 to 90 seconds but are never developed or taken anywhere interesting. The Bridge, on the other hand, is an extremely interesting, very modernist piece, lyrical and moderately dissonant, emotionally intense. Matt Haimovitz, who played eloquently and with gorgeous tone, was the cellist, and I'd like very much to hear it again, both for the piece and the performer.

The RVW surprised the hell out of me; it's extremely pessimistic, despairing, gloomy, and definitely not what you'd expect from Mr. English Folk Song himself. There is one moment when I thought it would go all hey-nonny-nonny, in the trio of the scherzo. Careful observers would have seen me glance at the ceiling of Avery Fisher and then put my head in my hands - but then that almost-sweet melody turned out to be bitterly ironic. Elsewhere in the pice, I heard an allusion to "Ich hab' ein gl├╝hend Messer," from Mahler's Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen.

I didn't realize RVW had it in him to write a piece this powerful, even though I know and love the Sea Symphony. The fourth is strongly put together and very moving; it ought to get played more, but how often do the English symphonists get played in this country? Right.

I think Leon Botstein, the conductor, is a little on the cautious side. The last two movements of the RVW would have made even more impact if they had been played a bit faster and more incisively.

I hadn't been in Avery Fisher Hall in, uh, well, not since the 1970s. The proportions are odd, with that giant sprawling orchestra section and the teeny shallow balconies. The last remodel left the hall looking ugly, except for the stage area. I remember approving reviews of the design - but the seats are such a bizarre color, sort of mustardy olive, or maybe green tinged too deeply with yellow. Muddy dun? Ick, in any event (and the seats are uncomfortable). The circulation space is dated, as well; the mobile that looks like it's made of giant brass toothpicks is hideous and the display cases (which had a great Elliot Carter exhibit) definitely look old-fashioned. I was also amazed to see a folding table set out at which Matt Haimovitz CDs were being sold; that touch was so amateurish, so high-school...isn't there a gift shop someplace??

Aesthetics aside, I'm not exactly sure why there is so much complaining about the sound. I was in about the 10th or 15th row and found it reasonably warm, with no problems hearing the winds and no sense that the brass ever overpowered the strings. At this point Avery Fisher is no worse, and I thought better than, Davies in SF, where there is an awful lot of undifferentiated blaring, the cellos and basses have very little presence, and if you're in one of the balconies you feel like the orchstra is a BART stop away, sonically speaking.

Update, April 12: The title of this posting is the title the ASO gave the concert I saw. Anne Midgette reviewed the concert in the Times earlier this week.

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