By Sarah Downs
The Orchestra Now (TŌN), Bard’s Orchestral Masters, founded in 2015 by Leon Botstein, President of Bard College and the orchestra’s conductor, is carving a niche for itself with both the silken quality of its sound and its educational outreach. The orchestra members are in the Bard Conservatory’s graduate program. In addition to performing they also write program notes and individual players introduce the pieces from the stage. In its concert “New Voices from the 1930’s” at Carnegie Hall on May 12th, TŌN was true to its word, displaying exceptional musicianship while bringing less well known composers to a new audience
The program opened with a piano concerto by William Grant Still, a man of many accomplishments, including being the first the African American composer to conduct a major symphony orchestra in the US. This concerto, Dismal Swamp, is symphonic poem for orchestra based on a two-stanza poem written by Verna Arvey, about the slave experience running away. Their flight often forced them to hide in the swamps that blocked the path to freedom, at once both impediment and refuge. The music echoes with bluesy chords and melody lines that tumble like so many leaves scattered by the breeze. In the poem’s first stanza, the swamp is a trap. One feels the darkness of night and the oppressive heat. Pianist Frank Corliss, plays with grace and energy, moving from the murky depths to brighter clarity. In the second stanza, when ‘strange charm greets those who penetrate’ the murky depths, rot turns to fresh growth. The swamp is transformed. Still’s music is a revelation, building from hypnotic opening with piano and lone clarinet, slowly filling out with strings and sweeping movement to hopeful climax. The sunshine has broken through.
The second piece, Piano Concerto by Carlos Chávez had an entirely different tone and texture. The sound was more clarion; the music at cross purposes with itself, almost a confusion of notes. There is urgency to the sound, as different instruments partner with the pianist. The piece is grand and varied. Pianist Gilles Vonsattel races up and down in arpeggios that seem to echo with questions and answers, building to a powerful conclusion colored by declarative trumpets
After intermission cleansed the musical palate, the orchestra launched into the beautiful Symphonic Variations of Witold Lutoslawski. Opening with flute playing a charming motif like a kind of woodland creature, the music held mystery and humor, in swirling motion. The piece is solemn, and yet the orchestra was alive with sound, every bell and whistle brought to bear.
The final piece of the evening was Karl Amadaus Hartmann’s Symphony No. 1, Essay for a Requiem with text from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (translated into German). Mezzo soprano Deborah Nansteel, fresh from her role as Alisa in Lucia di Lammermoor at the Metropolitan Opera, sang in dark, richly colored tone befitting the text. Nansteel’s voice has a gorgeous, chocolatey color and texture, especially in her low range. Hartmann’s music reflects war’s misery and one’s individual feeling of powerlessness. “I sitting look out upon. See, hear, and am silent.” The music is somewhat atonal – scattered, unpredictable, ominous, yet cohesive. One hears weeping, drums echoing like bombs in the distance and finally, in the Epilog a plea for peace. The poet is surveying the battlefield, and as the music ends we cannot avoid thinking, for whom does the bell toll next? In her introduction the piece, harpist Taylor Ann Freshmen expressed solidarity with the Ukraine, many players wearing blue in reflection thereof. The Ukraine’s suffering reminds us that humans have yet to conquer our capacity for violence.
Botstein conducts this diverse repertoire with authority and clarity. He has gathered a superb group of musicians. They make beautiful sound, playing in perfect musical accord. The string section is like velvet, the woodwinds haunting and the brasses clarion and confident. I would recommend any opportunity to hear them play.