By Edward Kliszus
Impresario Leon Botstein and The Orchestra Now of Bard College presented at Carnegie Hall – Exodus: Jewish Composers in Exile. This intriguing program title represented the product of Botstein’s brilliant artistic craft and expertise. In addition to a set of rare musical gems bound by history, two New York City premieres were on the program.
Simultaneously Inspired and Horrified
Botstein began the concert with an articulate exordium on the provenance of each musical work on tonight’s program. He eloquently described how some Jewish composers barely escaped Nazi rule. Listeners were simultaneously inspired and horrified as they settled in to experience musical products that emerged from the ethereal human spirits of hope and existence.
The program began with Alexandre Tansman’s Polish Rhapsody. Composed in 1939, Tansman, who escaped to Paris, was inspired by the rich folk music of his native country. A bittersweet reminder of Poland’s fall to the German armies in 1939, the work incorporates traditional Polish melodies, rhythms, and segments of the Polish and English national anthems.
Vivid Sonic Portrait
The orchestra began with the Rhapsody’s portentous and discordant introduction performed by the oboe before building in intensity and tempo. Showcasing mastery of Tansman’s virtuosic orchestrations, the ensemble ably expressed a lively dance with complex rhythms and intricate counterpoint. The final section returned to the opening’s mournful theme with added urgency and intensity. The orchestra achieved a vivid sonic portrait of the spirit and resilience of the Polish people while facing great hardship.
Next on the program was the New York City premiere of Josef Tal’s Exodus (1941), which pays tribute to the Jewish people’s exodus from ancient Egypt. The work is scored for orchestra and baritone soloist/storyteller (Noam Heinz). The music is based on text from the biblical Book of Exodus while drawing from Jewish history. The ensemble masterfully portrayed the polyphonic sections, harmonies, and admixture of traditional Jewish musical motifs and Western structures. This performance achieved Tal’s goals of signifying the resilience of the Jewish people in the face of adversity, along with expressing the passion of their collective aspirations.
Phrasing and Stylistic Nuances
Baritone Noam Heinz projected his rich, powerful voice imbued with extraordinary range and emotional depth. His technical abilities facilitated the execution of complex vocal passages as he seamlessly blended with the orchestra with harmony and expression. Heinz displayed his impeccable sense of musicality, intonation, and keen understanding of the phrasing and stylistic nuances. His textual interpretations sonically conveyed meaning and cultural contexts through an engaging and captivating stage presence. Listeners experienced Heinz’s virtuosic, authentic, and sophisticated performance.
Calcutta and Madura
The ensemble next tackled Walter Kaufmann’s Indian Symphony in its New York City Premiere. Inspired by Kaufmann’s escape from Nazi oppression to India in 1934, the work features four movements named after Indian cities: Benares, Bombay, Calcutta, and Madura. Characterized by a blend of Western and traditional Indian music, the symphony portrayed a series of contrasting moods and themes. The work’s provenance lies in Kaufmann’s travels and observations in India, inspiring him to pay artistic homage to the country’s rich cultural heritage.
Vibrant and Uplifting
The orchestra opened the first movement of the Indian Symphony set in an introspective mode, while the second was livelier and more rhythmic. The third movement featured marvelous percussion and Indian ragas, while the fourth concluded with a vibrant and uplifting theme.
Synthesis of Western and Indian Styles
The orchestra honored Kaufmann’s Indian Symphony as a fascinating example of a musical synthesis of Western and Indian styles. The musicians ably demonstrated Kaufmann’s intentions to merge diverse traditions into a cohesive and expressive whole.
Tonight’s final work was Marcel Rubin’s Symphony No. 4, “Dies irae.” A Swiss composer, organist, and conductor, Rubin, composed the work during World War II years while he was in Mexico. It is a major work of Rubin’s oeuvre and a significant Swiss symphonic work of the 20th century.
Rhythm and Melody as Dominant Elements
Originally named “War and Peace,” the symphony reflects Rubin’s remembrances of the Holocaust, with its haunting melodies and dark, brooding themes evoking loss and desolation. Rather than a Wagnerian preoccupation with dense harmonies, Rubin utilizes rhythm and melody as dominant elements to express meaningful ideas. His refined, eclectic style was seasoned by his work with his mentor, the adventurous, diverse, and experimental Darius Milhaud.
Clangour of the Bells
There was a dash of ominous church bells akin to the fifth movement of Berlioz’s Symphony Fantastique. One can hardly resist a digression to Edgar Allan Poe’s” From the bells bells bells bells/Bells bells bells!/In the clamour and the clangour of the bells!”
A Seed of Hope
This symphony utilized traditional forms and tonality in a highly expressive and romantic style. The first movement Kinderkreuzzug 1939 (Children’s Crusade 1939), began with a plaintive, melancholic solo by the viola before moving into themes of annihilation and lost hope. The second movement, “Dies irae” was a slow and contemplative adagio, while the final movement, “Pastorale” provided a seed of hope. The work’s sobering statement of the Gregorian Chant Dies irae about the dead and final judgment provided chilling references.
On the magnificent Carnegie Hall stage, the radiant Orchestra Now expressed voices that needed to be heard. Listeners experienced blazing sonic radiance rising from the provenance of the Second World War Jewish survivors. The music was set in an era of tragedy and loss by artists besieged by the Nazi abasement of the human spirit.
Marvelous, Memorable Concert
Under the able baton of Maestro Leon Botstein, the graduate-level symphony orchestra, The Orchestra Now, performed a challenging, diverse program with passionate, artistic confidence. Orchestra sections did their part while many fine soloists emerged. Tonight was a marvelous, memorable concert.
For information, calendar, and tickets to upcoming concerts, go to https://ton.bard.edu/tickets/.
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Readers may also enjoy our reviews of Oratorio Society of New York with Bach’s Magnificat and Mozart’s Requiem, The Orchestra Now presents Sight and Sound, The Orchestra Now presents the Lost Generation, Master Your Mindset: The Master’s Way, and The American Classical Orchestra presents Remember.