By Victoria Dammer
Surrounded by the heavenly beauty of the National Historic Landmark, Romanesque-styled St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church, the American Symphony Orchestra rewarded music lovers with an evening performance of two earthly compositions by composers Camille Saint-Saens and Dame Ethel Smyth.
Leon Botstein conducted the orchestra and has been the music director and principal conductor of the American Symphony Orchestra since 1992. In addition, he has been a guest conductor for the London Symphony, the London Philharmonic, and the Jerusalem Symphony. Several of his live performances are available online, and he is also the author of several articles and books, including Jefferson’s Children. Botstein has won numerous awards, including the Leonard Bernstein Award for the Elevation of Music in Society.
The most prominent and central part of the evening was the chance to hear St. Bart’s Aeolian-Skinner organ, the largest in New York City and one of the largest in the world, played by organist Paolo Bordignon. According to Botstein, this legendary organ “is ideal for a performance of the most symphonic work with the organ from the 19th century.” The organ played a predominant part in Saint-Saens’ opening symphony.
Saint-Saens composed Symphony No. 3 in 1886. Parisian Saint-Saens was a musical prodigy, composer, organist, and conductor. He studied at the Paris Conservatoire and taught at Ecole de Musique Classique et Religieuse in Paris. He studied mathematics, French literature, Latin, Greek, and astronomy, among other disciplines. Saint-Saens was revered worldwide as a genius,
The performance of Symphony No. 3 was approximately 35 minutes. Originally written in two movements with plucked notes by the cello, bass and violin, the organ and the strings “talk” to each other, and the orchestra was mesmerizing. This symphony contains the traditional four-movement structure, but Saint-Saens explained:
“this symphony is divided into two movements. Nevertheless, it contains, in principles, the four traditional movements; but the first, arrested in development, serves as an introduction to the Adaggio, and the Scherzo is linked by the same process to the Finale.”
The first movement featured a slow introduction and a quiet presentation. The second opened with strings and featured the heavy presence of the powerful Aeolian-Skinner organ and finished with a massive climax by the entire orchestra. A resounding standing ovation followed.
Following a short intermission, Smyth’s Mass in D, composed in 1891, featured four guest artists and the Bard Festival Chorale, directed by James Bagwell. Soprano Anya Matanovic, Mezzo-Soprano Eve Gigliotti, Tenor Joshua Blue, and Bass Adam Lau added their talented singing voices to what can be called one of the finest scores written by any composer in history. Music analyst Donald Francis Tovey said, “This music is, throughout, like Spinoza, God-intoxicated,” and indeed, the entire Mass was during its hour and 5-minute performance.
Smyth was born into a wealthy English family and pursued a musical career, studying for one year at the Leipzig Conservatory. Then, she left to study privately with Austrian composer and conductor Heinrich von Herzogenberg. Through her studies, she became acquainted with and influenced by many people, including Dvorak, Tchaikovsky, Clara Schumann, and Brahms. She was heavily involved with the women’s suffrage movement, spending time in jail for her participation.
In 1922, George V made Smyth a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire. She wrote over 70 musical compositions, including operas, chorals, and chamber music.
Music researcher Eugene Gates writes, “Smyth’s music was seldom evaluated as simply the work of a composer among composers, as that of a ‘woman’ composer. This worked to keep her on the margins of the profession.” For example, within the first five minutes of the Mass in D, the audience couldn’t care whether a man or a woman wrote the splendid music.
The Mass was written in six parts: Kyrie, Credo, Sanctus, Benedictus, Agnus Dei, and the resounding Gloria.
The Kyrie opened with the Bass section, and the chorus and orchestra dominated the Credo. The Sanctus featured the Alto solo, and the Agnus Dei showcased the tenor solo. Throughout the Mass, the voices of Matanovic, Gigliotti, Blue, and Lau, along with the Bard Festival Chorale, stirred the soul.
As the Gloria shook the walls with its impressive crescendo, who could doubt that angels heard this powerful performance; Smyth’s composition impressed all in attendance. The organ was dynamic. The loud applause for the conductor, the orchestra and the guest artists proved the American Symphony Orchestra presentations never go out of style.
Organ and Orchestra, presented by the American Symphony Orchestra and conducted by Leon Botstein at St. Bartholomew’s Church. With special guests Anya Matanovic, Eve Gigliotti, Joshua Blue and Adam Lau, with the Bard Festival Choral.