By Ed Kliszus
Tonight was the anniversary concert of the American Symphony Orchestra (ASO), founded 60 years ago in 1962 by the great Leopold Stokowski. This was also the final concert of the Bryant Park New York Picnic Performances that featured 26 evenings of live music, theater, and dance on the lawn.
An audience was eager to hear and see the American Symphony Orchestra filled Bryant Park. People were picnicking and set on blankets, seated at tables, and standing to ensure a clear view of the stage.
Conductor Leon Botstein offered welcomes and introduced tonight’s first musical selection, Aaron Copland’s Quiet City (1941). Featured soloists were Sarrah Bushara on English Horn and Gareth Flowers on trumpet. Both masterfully expressed the import of the work, capturing its essence of solitude, reflection, and nostalgia. The soloists’ repeated notes, chromatic arpeggios, and haunting melodies juxtaposed on the string orchestra’s plaintive accompaniment set the landscape to express Copland’s intent of restive interplay between the trumpet’s brilliance and the arcadian English Horn.
Wind, brass, and percussion arrived on stage to join the strings for William Grant Still’s work, Darker America (1924). A participant in the Harlem Renaissance, Still pursued his dream to express his art in music set in the classical sense; that is, in a Western European style. Still studied composition with classicist George Whitefield Chadwick and modernist Edgard Varèse, providing diverse and perhaps contradictory methodologies, In Darker America, one hears tonic language from African American music like descending melodic curves, structures from spirituals, blues scales, and at times harmonies and tone colors similarly used by George Gershwin during that time. As the orchestra unveiled this symphonic poem, we experienced dissonances, ominous tones, and lyricism that conveyed multiple visual references clearly associated with Still’s struggle as an African American intent on expressing his art in the conservatism of the symphonic concert hall.
The orchestra performed Louis Talma’s Full Circle (1985), Jacob Druckman’s Nor Spell Nor Charm (1990), and finished with a suite consisting of the music of J. S. Bach arranged by Gustav Mahler just after the turn of the 20th century.
The large audience was receptive to the program, which was diverse in style and form and contained much contemplative and evocative music that ended with the fresh, bright spirit of J. S. Bach’s work expressed in the romanticism of Mahler. The orchestra masterfully performed each work to ensure the expression of the composer’s artistic and imaginative intent. Despite the large audience, individuals remained focused and quiet as they enjoyed and experienced the music, this most ephemeral art form.
This concert shows that the upcoming season promises to be fabulous, richly diverse, and with something for everyone.
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Readers may also enjoy our reviews of The Orchestra Now at Symphony Space, The American Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall, The Orchestra of St. Lukes, and The American Classical Orchestra at Alice Tully Hall.