Leon Botstein Adds Grafenegg Festival

Musical America

By Susan Elliot

July 13, 2016

Austria’s Grafenegg Festival, now approaching its tenth year as a destination summer event, with preliminary events beginning July 16, has appointed Leon Botstein as artistic director of the Grafenegg Campus and Academy, effective in 2018. The position is a new one, not to be confused with artistic director of the festival itself; that is Rudolf Buchbinder, in the job since the event’s beginnings in 2007.

Apart from attracting some of the highest profile talent in the business [see below], a large part of the Grafenegg Festival’s appeal is its setting, on the nearly 70 acres and gardens surrounding Grafenegg Castle, about an hour’s drive from Vienna. Its primary venues include a vast open-air stage and a 1,300-seat auditorium, along with a number of smaller spaces, including rehearsal studios.

Known for his penchant for clever and unusual programs, both as music director of the American Symphony Orchestra and as artistic director of the summer festivals of Bard College, of which he is president, Botstein recently launched a new training orchestra called The Orchestra Now (TŌN), which will undoubtedly play a part in his new job at Grafenegg.

In a brief phone interview, he described his primary function there as creating innovative, thematic programs and events for rising artists, including members of TŌN, as well as European Union Youth Orchestra members and graduates, and integrating those programs with the larger festival. He also plans to explore the intersection of music with other disciplines and with the culture at large. His first summer will focus on the immediate post-war years and the new nationalism, including the emergence of Russian as well as American composers during that time frame.

As both cause and effect of his efforts, Grafenegg will expand in size and duration.

“The development of musical talent is dear to my heart,” said Buchbinder in a statement. “It makes me proud that we have not only become a significant venue for orchestras and artists of substantial acclaim, but that we also provide a home base for the next generation of musicians in the heart of Europe….We can test new visions…with an interdisciplinary approach.”

Botstein referred to making Grafenegg “a center of innovation in the character, significance, and content of concert life,” while the organization’s Executive Director Paul Gessl called it “a musical home to local, national and international young artists.”

The Festival’s 2016 season includes performances by the Vienna Philharmonic, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra under Daniele Gatti, the Cleveland Orchestra conducted and Franz Welser-Möst, violinist Hilary Hahn, and Composer in Residence Christian Jost and the Tonkunstler Orchestra.

Original story here.


MusicWeb International

By Ian Lace

June 2016

George GERSHWIN (1898-1937) Rhapsody in Blue (1924) [19.25] Piano Concerto in F (1925) [37.29] Variations on ‘I Got Rhythm’ [10.34] Eight Preludes for Solo Piano (1926-27) [17.30] (see end of review for detail of Preludes) Mark Bebbington (piano) Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Leon Botstein rec. St John’s, Smith Square, London, 2-3 October 2015 SOMM SOMMCD260-2 [67.47 + 17.30]

This is rather a new look at some very familiar Gershwin. Bebbington — well known for his probing readings — claims that he and Botstein “… discovered unexpected shades among the famous melodies …” The result: a freshness and a sense of joyous spontaneity that is distinctly appealing. Rather than a polite stuffy Park Avenue sensibility, this interpretation seems to tap the very essence of the thrusting, thriving metropolis that is the real New York.

The Piano Concerto in F was written in the year followingRhapsody in Blue and what strides in confidence and technique Gershwin gained in such a short time. One can tell right from the beginning, with the raw, emphatic timpani thuds that this reading is going to be something rather special. Rhythmic vitality is very much in evidence; so much so that I was completely carried away and could hardly keep still through much of the progress of the opening Allegro movement. Bebbington is alert to all the jazz inflections and syncopations without sacrificing the more classical elements. The music is thrillingly and unusually detailed and nuanced in bright sound engineered by Ben Connellan.

In a separate press release issued by Somm, Bebbington, claimed that "There is a real Mahlerian melancholy that lies at the heart of the slow movement of the Concerto, and it's when you take note of those profundities that the fierce joy elsewhere really makes sense." That may be so but for me the music of this exquisite movement is more reminiscent of Delius’s Paris. Both works share the elation of what could be a night out, a slightly tipsy one for Bebbington, around the City hot-spots before the music quietens. You sense the observer has wandered into a quieter, leafy part of the City and is in a sadder, more reflective mood brooding over ‘what might have been’?

The Final Allegro returns us to bustling, busy daytime City business; the rawness and urgency of its commerce with honking taxis and loud, colourful demonstrative New Yorkers. Then at the work’s final climax one senses a drawing away from the particular to an overall bird's eye view of the metropolis; the swagger falls away to be replaced by material cast in what Elgar termed nobilmente mood demonstrating an immense sense of affection and pride in this great City.

Very much the same comments apply to Bebbington and Botstein’s view of the more familiar Rhapsody in Blue. Their reading brings a breath of fresh air – the music has depth and contrast; the high spirits are brash, raw and invigorating. Again you hear material rarely discerned. Bebbington’s brilliant virtuosity makes the cadenza glow and that heart-warming tune is tenderly sung. The Bebbington/Botstein Variations on ‘I Got Rhythm’ are joyous too. Elated, the music skips, hops and leaps merrily through sparkling syncopations - and dreams romantically.

In an astute ‘two for the price of one’ marketing ploy, Somm offers a 17+ minute second CD devoted to the Eight Preludes for solo piano. The detail of them, with self-explanatory descriptions is set below and the music is drawn from the Piano Concerto heard on CD 1 and much material Gershwin used in other works. All are played with Bebbington’s virtuosic mastery and expressive aplomb.

So, accepting that these readings of the Concerto and Rhapsody are entering a very crowded field they should hold their own very well. My ultimate choice for best recording? I will confess I still maintain my allegiance to André Previn’s 1971 EMI Classics recording now available on Warner Classics and Leonard Bernstein’s acclaimed CBS-Sony reading.

Original story here.

Review: Gershwin: Piano Concerto, Eight Preludes etc CD review – persuasive swagger

The Guardian

By Erica Jeal

June 9, 2016

Pianist Mark Bebbington brings a nice balance of swagger and thoughtfulness to this all-Gershwin programme. He has said he finds a “Mahlerian melancholy” in the second movement of the Concerto in F, which is almost a concerto in itself, and his playing here is supported by some shapely and characterful wind playing. But the whole work brings a tautly wound performance under conductor Leon Botstein. Rhapsody in Blue starts with a clarinet solo even more languorous than usual, and the RPO’s colours at times are almost garish – the muted trumpets play up the wah-wahs for all they’re worth. But the performance is light on its feet, and the Variations on I Got Rhythm are similarly persuasive. An extra CD claims to offer the first recording as a complete set of the eight Preludes – five more than most will be familiar with in this form, all snappily played.

Original story here.

Five Lessons the Orchestra Can Learn from Museums


By Amanda Angel

March 18, 2016

Leon Botstein conducts TON at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. (David DeNee)

Often, when a classical music hall is described as a museum, it’s meant pejoratively. But for Leon Botstein, president of Bard College, director of the American Symphony Orchestra and the force behind a new program training future musicians, The Orchestra Now, the classical world could take notes from its counterparts in the visual arts.

“The museum has been reinvented so I’m using the term ‘museum’ in the more modern use of the word, as a lively place in which the new and the old meet, where there is a kind of curating,” he explained.

This approach is at the heart of TON (pronounced to rhyme with phone), a three-year graduate program at Bard, which launched this past fall. In addition to musical training and classes in curatorial studies, the students present an ambitious series of free and ticketed performances. In between preparations for its concert Friday, March 18, at the Brooklyn Center of Performing Arts, Botstein talked to us about five lessons the concert orchestra could learn from museums:

Programming as curators

“The whole idea is to curate a concert so that it resembles much more what a museum does. When you go to a show there’s an argument — a historical argument, a biographical argument —the paintings aren’t just thrown up on the wall at random. And there’s a catalogue which helps the viewer not only look around at the paintings but also to evaluate the arguments being made and to look at the familiar in a new way. There’s always a thematical adherence to the museum exhibition, and we’re trying to accomplish the same thing in concert programming.”

Listening to recordings is like looking at copies

“In art, the picture of a painting or sculpture in your art history book or on your computer is clearly not a work of art, however, recording, after the Second World War, particularly, developed an aura of importance. Why go hear TON play the Goldberg Variations when you could listen to Glenn Gould on your HiFi, right? We’re coming slowly out of that. It’s quite clear that the HD opera is not opera and that the recording of a Mahler symphony you have on your iPhone is not a symphony. It’s like a snapshot in an art history book. We’re in the business of reviving the idea that the experience of music has to be in real time with acoustic sound."

Finding relevance in the subject material

“There has always been a struggle of how do we make the connection between music and everything else we do. It’s a lot of easier when there’s a text. If you’re talking about instrumental music one of the things we have to do is find a way to connect the public to the function of music and what you can learn from music about the world you live in. Concertgoers are interested in politics and religion and they're interested in painting or sculpture or films. They’re curious people that are participating in the cultural life, and you have to relate to their interests. We’re doing programs that try to respond to their genuine thirst for information and for insight."

Providing a space for experimentation and reflection

“There’s no right way to listen. You don’t have to know a lot to go to a museum, look at painting, form your opinion, express your curiosity and be delighted by what you see; and the same goes for music. Presenting concerts is an exercise in innovation. It’s a laboratory not a pharmacy, dispensing already proven products. It’s experimenting to see what works, in an effort to solve what is the function and future of an orchestra.”

Fostering a conversation and language around music

"Everybody says, 'Oh I don’t go to concerts, I don’t know anything about classical music,' but I keep saying you don’t need to know anything. I don’t know anything about art; I don’t know anything about movies, and I go to museums and movies all the time. I’m persuaded that there’s something to know. They don’t need to give you an analysis of the work they heard, but they can express if they’ve had a good time and were moved or not moved by it. And these orchestra members in TON are learning how to use of language to talk about music. That’s why at concerts we have a question and answer period after a concert, and that’s why we encourage the musicians to talk with the audience."

Quotes have been condensed.

Read original story here.

New SAT is "ludicrous," says college president

Fox 5 New York

March 2, 2016

On Saturday, high school students across the country will sit down to take a revamped Scholastic Aptitude Test.

The new SAT (which looks a lot like the American College Testing exam) will, in most cases, give colleges a tool to help determine whether the student will be accepted to that institution of higher learning. But at Bard College in upstate New York, the SAT carries little weight.

“I think both of these tests are ludicrous. They don’t do anybody any good; not the taker, not the college. America is obsessed with these tests. The college rankings are partially to blame for this," said Bard College President. Dr. Leon Botstein. So what’s wrong with the SAT and ACT?

“They’re dumb. They are useless. Doing well on a test has nothing to do with learning and nothing to do with being successful in life. It helps you get into college and nothing else," said Dr. Botstein.

But not everyone agrees with Botsein.

“When the colleges are seeing applications from thousands of high schools , many that they don’t recognize, they need an objective way to compare students among each other," said Eric Greenberg, owner of an educational and tutoring service.

Here are the changes to the SAT:

1. A lot of rare vocabulary words that used to be on the test will not be there 2. Reverting back to the 200-800 scale for math and verbal sections 3. The essay is now optional

"The big picture is that the SAT is changing to look a lot more like the ACT. A lot of people in the field say it’s a response to the ACT getting more of the market share so it’s a business plan," said Greenberg.

Original story here.

Review: A fresh recording of 'Long Christmas Dinner' serves plenty to be thankful for

Los Angeles Times

By Mark Swed

December 22, 2015

Christmas, we like to remind ourselves, is about family. But the season tends to offer surprisingly little familial music of any real significance.

The subject matter of holiday oratorio, cantata, opera or song tends to be either the Christmas story itself or our own surroundings and issues, whether dreaming of a white Christmas or the jingling of bells or cash registers. Even "The Nutcracker" isn't really family ballet but fantasy.

Paul Hindemith's "The Long Christmas Dinner" is exactly what's needed. Completed in 1961, it is the last opera by one of the 20th century's major composers. The English-language libretto, remarkably, is by Thornton Wilder — remarkably because while Wilder may have been a musical connoisseur (he actually directed a Handel opera in 1935), the playwright and novelist was notoriously unaccommodating to composers. He even turned down operatic requests from Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein.

But Wilder did come around when approached by Hindemith. The result is a wistful, exquisite and profoundly touching tiny masterpiece, which seemed to have no legs whatsoever. The first performance was in Germany, with the libretto translated into serviceable German by the composer. Hindemith conducted the premiere of the original English-language version at the Juilliard School in 1963, a few months before he died, and it was all but forgotten until Leon Botstein revived it last year in New York with his American Symphony Orchestra. Bridge Records has now released a live recording just in time for Christmas dinner.

Short and bittersweet, the opera covers a 90-year parade of a Midwestern family's Christmas dinners through the generations. The overture is based on "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen," and there are hints of hymn music here and there, but otherwise religiosity is avoided in what is essentially a meditation on the passing of time by two great artists at or near the ends of their long careers (Wilder died in 1975).

The entire opera takes place at the dinner table. As the years go by, children take the places of parents, serving white meat or dark. Mindfulness to tradition is attempted as family members record the names of ancestors. But memory fades without anyone quite grasping the process.

What matters most, then, is not the Christmas dinner that came before or the one that will come next but an appreciation of the moment. Love and loss, life and death happen quickly, so pay attention. Surprisingly, "The Long Christmas Dinner" turns out to be an opera about the inevitability of impermanence, possibly making it the first and only covertly Buddhist Christmas opera.

To do this, Hindemith and Wilder made every condensed musical phrase or line of text have essential purpose. Time flows unstoppably in the understated score, with its subtle pastel instrumental colors and graciously unshowy vocal writing attuned to the sound and meaning of the word.

The performance features a young American cast that enunciates clearly if not especially strong on personality. But the orchestra is excellent, and Botstein's account avoids what an older, better-sung German recording doesn't, namely sentimentality. The wisdom of "The Long Christmas Dinner" is that there can be no long Christmas dinners.

All happy families are not, as Tolstoy suggests, alike, because happiness, like all else, is ephemeral, So make this Christmas dinner matter.

Original story here.

'The Long Christmas Dinner': An opera for before, not during, your feast

Off-Ramp | Southern California Public Radio

By Marc Haefele

December 16, 2015

Bridge Records is an independent record label that, along with the usual classical repertoire, focuses on classical music from the 1900s and 2000s. The label has just put out the first recording in English of “The Long Christmas Dinner,” a short opera written in the 1960s. It's a collaboration between two titans. Off-Ramp commentator Marc Haefele says it is the perfect recording to provide some perspective on your holiday gatherings.

It’s the big Bayard family holiday and nine people sit at the long Christmas dinner table. The table is decked with holly. There are doors stage left and right. One door is surrounded by birds and flowers, another by black crepe.

We soon realize that this meal is not a finite event. As matters proceed, we understand that this 49-minute opera contains 90 years of family history — multiple generations who will repeat the same banal phrases about the food, the weather and the holiday church service.

Eventually most of the diners walk through the black door of death. Others emerge from the door of birth. A baby is wheeled right out of the bright door and across the stage to the dark one. The holiday camaraderie gradually gives way to conflict, and estrangement disperses all the Bayards from the old family home.

The story has been told and the music stops. The dinner is over and so are the Bayards. The audience is shaken. Merry Christmas to all.

“The Long Christmas Dinner” is a collaboration between two of the most extraordinary creators of the 20th century: German-born composer Paul Hindemith and Pulitzer Prize-winning American playwright Thornton Wilder. Wilder wrote “Our Town” and “The Merchant of Yonkers,” which inspired the musical “Hello Dolly!”

It is hard to categorize Hindemith’s overall musical style. "Music, despite its tendency toward abstraction, is basically a means of communication," Hindemith said. "Composers and performers have a social responsibility to be comprehensible."

“The Long Christmas Dinner” is comprehensible in part because Wilder is able to say a great deal in very few words. As in all great Greek drama, Wilder’s big events happen offstage — as in the death of Emily in “Our Town.” The characters’ reaction is the story, which is taut, surprising, scary and deeply affecting. It could almost be an episode of "The Twilight Zone."

Hindemith’s music is lyrical and gently foreboding. The optimism of the words of the men’s holiday trio — “Here’s to the Health and Here’s to the Wealth” — is belied by a creepy, minor-key accompaniment from the orchestra. In just a moment, the Bayard family patriarch will exit death’s door — as would Hindemith himself, nine months after the opera’s premiere.

Gradually, the others disperse. “There are no more children,” says one diner. Finally, a distant cousin is left alone by what Wilder called “the great mill-wheel of life and death.” Before she too fades, she is consoled by a letter from Bayard descendants who have moved far, far away.

As much as I like this opera, I’m not suggesting you use the score as dinner music at your holiday table. Instead, pay attention to the family and friends around you — some of them may not be at the table next year.

The opera was first performed in English in 1963. It was revived last December in sold-out, widely-applauded performances at New York’s Alice Tully Hall by Leon Botstein, the polymath Bard University president who also conducts the American Symphony Orchestra. This is the fine performance Bridge Records has released on CD.

I asked CSU Bakersfield music professor and Hindemith enthusiast Joel Haney if "The Long Christmas Dinner" might work well on one of L.A. Opera's short-opera double bills, like in last year’s  program of Purcell’s “Dido and Aeneas’’ and Bartok’s “Bluebeard’s Castle.” Haney, who wrote the notes for the Bridge Records "Dinner” recording, responded: "An L.A. Opera performance would be great! I don't have any immediate thoughts for what might go on the other half.’’ Neither do I, but I’d prefer that it not be "Cavalleria Rusticana" or "Pagliacci.”

Original story here.

Opera Recording of the Year 2015


By Andrew Aronowicz

December 11, 2015


The passage of time is the subject of this lesser-known work by Paul Hindemith. It was his last opera, a thoughtful setting in English of Thornton Wilder’s play of the same name, which sees the Bayard family enjoying their Christmas feast over 90 years. New life is celebrated, old lives commemorated and mourned and the repercussions of decisions are played out over decades. The cast play characters from old and young generations, entering through one door and exiting through another when their time is up.  Hindemith’s score works with the cyclical nature of the libretto. Familiar melodies and phrases are uttered by younger characters, echoing the words of matriarchs and patriarchs from years past. The chamber orchestration is expressive yet tidy, never overpowering the soloists and providing a constant stream of accompaniment to the evolving feast. The melodies favour lyricism, rather than the angularity of Hindemith’s early neoclassicism. That said, he’s kept the emotional restraint, so the music never becomes sentimental. With crystal clear diction, the performances by the various soloists are excellent. So too is the American Symphony Orchestra, under Leon Botstein’s secure direction. This is its first English recording, and it’s a fascinating find for lovers of 20th-century opera.

Original full story here.


Written for the concert Russia's Jewish Composers, performed on December 17, 2015 at Carnegie Hall.

The history of the Jews in Russia, before and during the first decades after the 1917 revolution, is a complex amalgam of segregation, poverty, exclusion, persecution, and extraordinary intellectual and cultural achievement both within the confines of Jewish society and culture and also outside in the larger non-Jewish Russian world. The significance of Russian Jewry to the development of modern Russian culture, and indeed to the central elements of the modern Russian national self-image, cannot be overestimated.

It is therefore not surprising that from the very start of communism and the Soviet Union, Jews were treated as a distinct nation rather than a religious group, comparable to the Georgians or the Armenians. Jews were given status as such. Yiddish rather than Hebrew was considered the Jewish national language and under Soviet rule (until the devastating purges of the late 1940s during Stalin’s final years), the Yiddish language, and the theatre and music associated with Yiddish culture, received extensive state patronage. The supposed elevation of Jews to a national status, however, was both ambivalent and disingenuous. It was designed to blunt the allure of Zionism and Hebrew, as well as to circumvent, with a fatal embrace, the hope that under communism, anti-Semitism would disappear. The official recognition of Jewish nationality actually insured the persistence of anti-Semitism; after all, on all official documents, including passports, one’s nationality was identified. Every Jew was labeled as such.

All the composers on this program were Russian Jews by birth. The oldest is the piano virtuoso, conductor, and composer Anton Rubinstein, whose fame—particularly in the United States—was legendary. Rubinstein, who taught Tchaikovsky, also was chosen to lead the celebrated Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Vienna. His works won wide acclaim. Posterity, however, has been less kind. Despite its once enormous popularity, his “Ocean” symphony has lapsed into obscurity, together with the rest of his orchestral oeuvre. Rubinstein’s family (including his almost equally famous musician brother Nikolai) converted from Judaism when Anton was a young boy. Anton was brought up as a Christian but like so many converts, he realized that baptism was never a cure or antidote for anti-Semitism, since the prejudice was racial and political, not theological: once a Jew, always a Jew. Anton Rubinstein is alleged to have observed, “Russians say I am German, Germans think me Russian, Jews call me a Christian, and Christians say I am a Jew.”

The fact is that more of Rubinstein’s music deserves to be played, as this concerto for cello and orchestra makes clear. Rubinstein’s musical output was enormous. Much of the best music was dramatic music written for the stage. A vast number of dramatic works with a “Jewish” connection appear in Rubinstein’s catalogue, including an opera on the Maccabees, works on the Tower of Babel, and Moses, all alongside works explicitly on Christian subjects (most notably a setting of Paradise Lost). In the late-19th-century debate on what ought to be truly “Russian” music, Anton Rubinstein was unfairly derided as a second rate purveyor of German musical traditions.

Two of the Russian Jewish composers on this program are represented with works written when they were young. Both Krein and Gnesin became prominent for their contributions as explicitly “Jewish” composers. Both men, influenced by Rimsky-Korsakov, celebrated the folk roots of their own specific national origin as Jews. They became leading members of the legendary and seminal St. Petersburg Society for Jewish Folk Music, founded in 1908.

Yet the works on this program remind us that their distinction and contribution as composers were not limited to the extent to which they utilized their Jewishness in their music. It is easy to overlook the extent of acculturation and symbiosis between the Jewish and the Russian in ways that bypassed the Fiddler on the Roof stereotype; we associate that process of cosmopolitan intermingling more readily with the historical dynamics between Jews and non-Jews in German speaking Europe before 1933. Krein and Gnesin absorbed and extended—as did their contemporaries Joseph Achron, Lazare Saminsky, and Sergei Prokofiev—the influence of symbolism and of Scriabin and Rimsky. Gnesin and Krein, at the time they wrote the works on this program, were Russian cosmopolitan advocates of an avant-garde first and Jewish culture second.

The last work on the program is by a rival and contemporary of Stravinsky’s, Shostakovich’s teacher Maximilian Steinberg. One of the ironies of history is that Steinberg’s ballet Metamorphosen was scheduled for the same 1913 season as the Rite of Spring, and Stravinsky, who was jealous that Rimsky favored Steinberg and that Steinberg married Rimsky’s daughter, did everything he could to thwart Steinberg’s competing work.

Steinberg was the son of a major Hebrew scholar. Despite his extensive background in Jewish history and culture, unlike Krein and Gnesin, but rather more as a latter day Anton Rubinstein, Steinberg did not privilege his Jewish identity in his work and chose a quite eclectic array of inspirations for his music—from Uzbek folk material to the legend of Till Eulenspeigel. As Steinberg’s early symphonies—and the 1913 ballet score—suggest, the talent and facility of the young composer were extraordinary, as was his familiarity with the compositional traditions of Western Europe and Russia.

Steinberg is most often remembered not for his music but indirectly, first on account of his place in Stravinsky’s life, and second, because of his connection to Shostakovich. He deserves more. Nonetheless, perhaps the most admirable indirect consequence of Steinberg’s career derives from the Shostakovich connection, not the link to Stravinsky. Shostakovich was rather the exception among Russian composers in his complete lack of anti-Semitism. Indeed Shostakovich identified with the plight of the Jews. He showed rare courage in his support of the family of Solomon Mikhoels, the great Yiddish actor who was killed by Stalin in 1948, and his protective advocacy of and friendship with the Polish Jewish composer Mieczysław Weinberg, who settled in Russian after 1945. Perhaps it was Shostakovich’s admiration and affection for his teacher that sustained his decency and courage on this issue.

Together, these four Russian composers, whose life and career span the second half of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th—arguably the heyday of classical musical culture—reveal the extent of acculturation, integration, and participation in Russian intellectual and artistic life by Jews. We have the unfortunate tendency to reduce the complexity of the past to stereotypes. The Jews of Russia evoke—legitimately—the image of mass poverty, the shtetl, sardonic humor, klezmer and Yiddish eloquence: a distinctly Jewish culture born out of the unique experience of the Pale Settlement. It is to those roots that Krein and Gnesin—much like the young painter Marc Chagall—eventually turned in search of a unique source for a modern art and culture of their own. By so doing they were following a parallel pattern of discovery that would become audible in the music of Bartók and Stravinsky.

This concert reminds us that in literature, science, art, and above all music, there was a Russian Jewish elite, fully conversant with Russian and European traditions that made seminal contributions to the mainstream of culture and art without foregrounding or even referencing their status as Jews. That remarkable achievement by an extraordinary elite is highlighted on today’s concert program.

Hindemith: The Long Christmas Dinner

Opera News

By Joshua Rosenblum

December 2015

HERE'S A WELCOME RELEASE—the first English-language recording of The Long Christmas Dinner, Hindemith’s 1960 opera adaptation of Thornton Wilder’s play, with a libretto by Wilder himself. Although Wilder’s original libretto was (unsurprisingly) in English, the only previous recording of the work is of the German translation Hindemith made later. American Symphony music director Leon Botstein resurrected the original version of this one-act opera last year at Alice Tully Hall for a rare performance, paired intriguingly with a presentation of Wilder’s original play. Bridge Records captured the live performance of the opera in this recording.

Like the play, the opera traces the joys and sorrows of the Bayard family over a series of Christmas dinners that span ninety years. Major life events (births, marriages and deaths) are represented symbolically, by the exit of an aging matriarch or the entrance (sometimes immediately following) of a surprisingly ambulatory new mother proclaiming, “Look! Look at my child!” Hindemith and Wilder telescope the fleeting decades with skillful concision, highlighted by the inclusion of several mysterious, shimmering ensemble pieces that specifically reflect on the passage of time (“How long have we been in this house?”). The composer’s cheerfully chugging textures and characteristically pungent, neoclassical musical language are well-suited for capturing the bustle of holiday preparations, yet he manages to tinge even the joyful, upbeat sections with subtly wistful nostalgia. When characters specifically summon events from their pasts, Hindemith provides a distinctive version of Copland-esque Americana that is eloquent but not sentimental. His use of dissonance to signify brooding or impending death is subtle and sure-handed. The high point of the opera is a stunningly beautiful sextet, in which young Sam (the clarion-voiced baritone Jarrett Ott), on leave from military service, tells his family to “Do what you do on Christmas Day.” As the family chats lightly, Sam sings a soaring descant above them (“I shall hold this tight! I shall remember you so!”) to a wondrously vibrant triadic accompaniment. This turns out to have been his requiem; his sister sings a lament for him (“He was only a boy”) before the number has concluded.

Soprano Camille Zamora portrays both Lucia and, later, her own granddaughter (Lucia II); this serves nicely to encapsulate the cyclic nature of time’s generational flow. Zamora sings with an appealing sparkle that she sustains even as she assures her own daughter not to grieve upon her death; this quality also serves her well in Lucia II’s role as peacemaker. In addition to playing Sam, baritone Ott brings a reassuring, enveloping quality to Roderick, the first Lucia’s husband. Bass-baritone Josh Quinn is rugged and self-confident as cousin Brandon. Charles (Glenn Seven Allen) and Leonora (Kathryn Guthrie) bring matching timbres—simultaneously bright and tender—to a lilting, harmonically unusual marriage duet. Later, they are joined by Genevieve (mezzo Catherine Martin), the self-declared spinster, for a sweetly contemplative trio (“Time flies so fast”). Mezzo Sara Murphy plays both Mother Bayard, who has a nostalgic reverie in the first scene, and cousin Ermengarde, who is left alone at the end to sing a final meditation, which Murphy renders with exquisite poignancy. Tenor Scott Murphree brings the requisite charisma and vocal brashness to the role of Roderick II, the errant rogue who renounces his family ties. Martin’s Genevieve generates considerable drama in her own farewell aria. The American Symphony Orchestra plays with great precision and beauty under Botstein, who has guided them intrepidly through adventurous repertoire such as this for a quarter of a century.

Original full story here.

Bard's The Orchestra Now Soars

The Millbrook Independent

By Kevin T. McEneaney

October 2015

The first performance of the full TŌN (pronounced tone) Orchestra, The Orchestra Now, at Bard proved to be a resounding success on October 24. This augers well for both students, patrons, and loyal attendees of the Sosnoff Theater where the concert hall was 95% sold out as conductor Leon Botstein took the podium.

Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2, where Beethoven first began to stake out his originality, had been previewed at Simon’s Rock last month. The performance there was good, but Saturday night’s performance was more nuanced, richer in both sound and unity. The superior acoustic of Sosnoff gave the Orchestra an extra lift, yet the players were more relaxed, self-confident. There was more drive in the Scherzo and more polish in the final movement. Dawon Eileen Suh from Korea emerged as a stand-out violinist.

The 1948 Cello Concerto of Mieczslaw Weinberg was an unusual featured choice by Canadian cellist Rylan Gajek. Having fled Poland and established a successful career in Russia, Weinberg was not immune to Stalin’s 1948 expansion of gulags peopled by hundreds of thousands of Jews, many of them ardent Russian nationalists. A good friend of Shostakovich, Weinberg served time, but after Stalin’s death Shostakovich managed to get Weinberg released. This cello concerto offers an extended lament with ghostly Yiddish melodies arriving and departing. The cello becomes the character of Job. While Gajek played with clear lyrical lines, the orchestra was slightly timid. A promising talent was blooming before us, telling this tragic story with pathos while sustaining suspense.

Two years ago Bard Conservatory Orchestra had performed Symphony No.11 (1975) by Dmitri Shostakovich. The performance was good enough to recall vaguely, yet what happened last Saturday night was spectacular, fabulous, transcendent. Botstein obviously knows this work inside-out. Most critics write off this Symphony as a minor work, but Botstein has finally proven that it is a major work: beginning with idealistic hope this chronicle of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution turns to confusion, then mournful lament, and finally to a chilling, unforgettable, macabre conjuration of evil itself.

The horror, anger, and pathos reached illuminating transformation as brass and percussion crushed strings, flutes, and harp, which was humiliatingly reduced to a fallen, irrelevant historical footnote—the ever-diffident Shostakovich had finally let loose. The result was terrifying, musically overpowering, thrilling. Botstein and orchestra became a single entity. The audience sat stunned, speechless. People gradually began to applaud, then slowly stand, until all were standing and applauding. What an auspicious start to the TŌN project!

It’s time that American critics and music fans recognize that Shostakovich, despite his occasional flaws, be seen as being in the same league as Beethoven. What also sprang to mind was that a new kind of hatred akin to Ant-Semitism now rears its ugly head in America: a loathing and hatred for all things Russian. History repeats an old paradigm: hateful demonization of the Other whom one does not understand transforms the hater into a demon. The specter of the scapegoat remains a timeless architype.

What was on display were students transcending cultural barriers and a conductor who had realized a musical vision of both then and now. The past was the present and the present was the past—only music can speak this visionary language beyond boundaries of time.

Original full story here.

Botstein, ASO open strongly with musical art for art’s sake

New York Classical Review

By George Grella

October 17, 2015

Mimesis—that was the concept around which conductor Leon Botstein organized the season-opening concert for the American Symphony Orchestra Friday night at Carnegie Hall. “Musical Representations” was the subtitle, and the music on the program came out of non-musical experiences. If mimesis is strictly an artistic representation of the real world, then Botstein’s program put that on display, and added a layer of abstraction with music that represented art itself.

The orchestra also presented a necessarily succinct argument about tonal modernism, with music from Gunther Schuller, Henri Dutilleux, and a work from Nico Muhly that was premiered earlier this year. Finishing it all off was the familiar entertainments of Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra, which turned out to be the least mimetic music of the concert.

Schuller’s Seven Studies on Themes of Paul Klee was the opener, seven representations of images from the painter. Perhaps, though, the music is better understood as seven of Schuller’s reactions to paintings by Klee.

Schuller, who died this past summer solstice, had a substantial career as a composer, musician, conductor, teacher, and writer, and is most immediately known for coining the term “third-stream,” to describe music that combined elements of both jazz and the classical tradition. Schuller himself was a pioneer of the concept, and the third study, “Little Blue Devils,” is a solid jazz composition for a symphony orchestra.

“Little Blue Devils” swings inasmuch as the orchestra and conductor swing, and while it clearly shows Schuller’s values, it seems very far from Klee. The other studies, however, manage the uncanny job of filling the mind’s eye with Klee’s spare, graceful lines, quiet colors, and odd, playful images. The music is pointillist, colorful, quiet, and full of empty space, and the orchestra played it all with precision and sensitivity. One extended study, “Arab Village,” is Schuller’s idea of how that painting sounds, and the Medieval quality of the music is skillful and fascinating, especially when played as beautifully as the orchestra did.

The fine playing continued with Dutilleux’s song cycle Correspondances, a piece based around poetry from Rilke and Prithwindra Mukherjee, and letters written by Solzhenitsyn and Van Gogh. Van Gogh sounds fundamentally integrated into Dutilleux’s overall style. The composer’s music is so vividly colorful, and the way it makes use of blocks of orchestral sound as structural, not just for orchestration, often sounds the way the painter’s The Starry Night looks.

Singing was the impressive young soprano Sophia Burgos. Her sound is light and lyric and her intonation was exact. The songs are all about vivid sensations of the mind and body, an ideal subject for the composer, and Burgos delivered them with expressive phrasing. Botstein controlled the balances, and the orchestra produced a gorgeous sound, especially the aqueous muted brass choirs.

Muhly’s Seeing is Believing was a jaggedly mixed experience. The piece is a violin concerto that conveys the idea of sketching out the constellations through the stars in the sky. The soloist was electric violinist Tracy Silverman, who is a terrific, charismatic musician. He produces a wide range of rich sounds with his six-string instrument and associated effects, and the best part of the piece was hearing him play; setting loops as accompaniment, shimmering through elegant modulations of color and dynamics, chopping out crunchy, rhythmic patterns.

From a compositional standpoint, Muhly relies too much on the soloist, the accompaniment is formless and feels too long. At the coda, though, Silverman and orchestra came together in a more certain structure, and that music produced the muscular beauty that is Muhly at his best.

This was all mimesis as musical impressionism, literally so and also in the historical tradition. While Debussy always hated that term for his own music, his sound and his ideas about form have been essential to the development of the classical tradition over the past 100 years. Schuller, Dutilleux and Muhly all fit comfortably inside his broad and extensive legacy.

Strauss was the outlier in every way. His extravagant late romantic sound made even Dutilleux seem ascetic in comparison, and his subject matter also set him in relief. While the other composers found something outside themselves to represent, Strauss, while ostensibly representing Nietzsche, was fronting himself.

Philosophy is not a fruitful subject for music, but Nietzsche excited Strauss’ intellect and inspired action. The result was the grand, grandiose, and fluid Also sprach Zarathustra, an abstract narrative of one man’s thoughts. As out of place as it felt amidst the other works, the playing was on the same fine level as the rest. This is music that Botstein has obvious feelings for, and he was at his most animated. While the size of the orchestra’s sound never matched what one would expect from the mass of musicians onstage, the playing was full of passion and verve.

 Original story here.

Review: Paul Hindemith (1895-1963) The Long Christmas Dinner - An Opera

MusicWeb International

By Nick Barnard

October, 2015

This is a rather rare and special disc. Rare, because as far as I can tell this is the first recording in the original English language of this late Hindemith opera and special because it is very good.

Hindemith conducted the first English performance of the opera at the Juilliard School in New York just nine months before his death in December 1963. For the libretto he persuaded Thornton Wilder (1897-1975) to collaborate with him in adapting his own one-act play of the same name that he had written thirty years previously. Wilder remains a cornerstone of the American literary and theatrical establishment but was notoriously unwilling to allow his works to be used for alternative theatrical or musical use. Hence although The Matchmaker did make it to the stage as Jerry Herman's Hello Dolly, he refused permission for his most famous works; Our Town and The Skin of our Teeth. The latter was mooted as a musical by Bernstein - which the author accepted - but when that venture collapsed he rejected Bernstein's further approach to make it an opera. According to the liner written by Tappan Wilder - Wilder's nephew and literary executor - he was extremely well versed in music in general and opera in particular as well as many languages. Skills, one imagines, that must help the collaborative process between composer and librettist a lot.

The dramatic conceit behind this highly compressed work is essentially a simple one. The drama is presented in a single fluid sequence of Christmas dinners in one household over a period of ninety years. There is no significance with it being Christmas except that it is a day that brings families together so the audience witnesses the succeeding generations in the same setting. Apparently Orson Welles credited the original play as the inspiration behind the famous 'breakfast-montage' sequence in Citizen Kane where the audience witnesses the changing/decaying relationship between Kane and his first wife. Hindemith writes in a similarly fluid style - there is little division between scenes. He uses recurring motifs to signify the passing years. Wilder's libretto revisits moments of perfunctory conversation that will be familiar to every family; "how many years have we lived here?", "you were missed at church today", "I remember when ..." With such conversational text it comes as no surprise that Hindemith writes in an arioso/recitative style - this reminded me in technique if not style of that used by Vaughan Williams in his equally compact and dramatically potent Riders to the Sea. There are few if any arias or indeed ensembles. That being said a highlight of the score is a dramatically moving and technically brilliant sextet where Sam, one of the central family's sons is on leave from the army. He tells his family to act exactly as normal so he has memories to treasure and over their prattling inconsequential small talk he sings a touching counter-melody chorale-like song; "I will hold this tight! I shall remember you!"

To give some sense of the dramatic compression at work: Sam exits; "and so good-bye", the next line of the text laments his death in the war "He was only a boy, a mere boy ... What can we do ... only time can help " and the line following that has moved the plot forward by some years and introduces another character on another Christmas day. Memory, memorial and how we live through the actions and memories of our relatives past and future lie at the heart of this work. The house is the unchanging focal point - although the closing line of the work is "And they're building a new house" but it is the lives of the inhabitants of the house that count.

Not because the text is convoluted or opaque this is an opera that requires considerable concentration if you are not quite literally to lose the plot. Fortunately the entire libretto - in English and Hindemith's own German translation - is included. Layers of potential confusion are added by the fact that - as with many families - certain names are passed down hence we have two Lucias and two Rodericks. Even more confusion comes from the fact that the same singer sings both Lucias and another sings two different roles. Seen live, this might be clear through transitions of costume or setting - with only the ear to guide — blink (in an auditory sense) and you will have dropped a decade. My sole observation with this as a piece of theatre is, I wonder if the compression prevents the audience becoming engaged with any individual character - they simply do not inhabit the stage long enough. That being said, Wilder's drawing of character is so searching and well-observed that I think most of us would recognise personality types and scenarios from our own experience that give weight and resonance to these precisely-drawn sketches.

Hindemith makes no attempt to place the music in time or place. Just the opposite in fact - his chamber orchestra includes a rather anachronistic harpsichord. This was surely the right decision - with such an express journey over the best part of a century it would end up a patch-work of pastiche. Neither does he make any particular significance of it being Christmas except for the work's brief Prelude//Introduction which is a rather curdled and harmonically dense take on "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" - which is about as un-merry as it is possible to imagine. In the essay accompanying the disc by Joel Haney he describes the work as one "which ponders the experience of time as a condition of human possibility and limitation -'the bright and the dark' - through the rise and decline of an American bourgeois family". The brilliance of both authors lies in the way they tie this sense of continuity across time - Hindemith's is a slightly subtler skill because he uses fragments of melody and motif which burrow into the subconscious so by the second or third listen the ear begins to pick up on the connections the music is making with recurring characters situations or text. Hence, this is the work of a master-craftsman. As so often, I find the accusation of Hindemith being a dry or dusty composer wholly without justification. No, he does not write big arching overtly emotional melodies. Rather he points to subtler, more 'real' scenarios which have resonance and truth for the engaged audience member.

So to this performance; Leon Botstein and his American Symphony Orchestra clearly thrive on the discovery and performance of little-known and under-appreciated works. In the past with some of the grander-scale and overtly Romantic works I have found Botstein's approach to be a degree clinical and unwilling to unbutton. Here the precision and measured emotion of Hindemith's score seems to chime perfectly with his aesthetic. This is a recording of a single live performance which given the ensemble complexities and unfamiliarity of the piece is remarkably good. There is no audible audience noise - my only sorrow is that the hall ambience is cut off very quickly at the end of the work - to preclude applause one supposes. The orchestra play very well - the engineering places the instruments quite closely behind the voices which occasionally obscures the text. All of the singers are of a very high standard and fortunately most of the text is sung with commendable clarity. Of particular brilliance is the beautifully light and clear singing of Kathryn Guthrie as Leonora. Indeed the entire cast are excellent both in ensemble and individually. None make any attempt to 'age' their voices with their characters - something perhaps an actor in the original theatrical version might.

Bridge present this single CD in a double CD case - presumably to allow for the thicker than usual liner/libretto. As well as the text the liner includes the usual performer biographies as well as two useful essays about the work. The disc runs for less than fifty minutes but so concentrated and complete in itself is the work that a filler would seem inappropriate and unnecessary. A fascinating and rather moving work. It reveals Hindemith and Wilder as masters of the slow-burn potent theatrical experience which lingers in the memory for the power of its insight into the human condition.

Original story here.


Written for the concert Mimesis: Musical Representations, performed on October 16, 2015 at Carnegie Hall. This season’s opening concert addresses a basic and persistent question that has remained the subject of endless debate and speculation. The answer remains unresolved and contested, a fact that inspired Leonard Bernstein to appropriate the title of a work by Charles Ives, “The Unanswered Question,” for his Harvard Norton Lectures on music. This concert invites the audience to explore the character of music through the medium of “classical” (or, as Bernstein once put it, “exact”) music written during the past century and a half.

The program seeks to inspire each of us to ask: How does music mean? What resemblances or divergences does it have to words and images? What did composers intend to communicate and can we know that from hearing the music? Do we perceive or attribute significance in music differently from previous generations? Is listening, like seeing, a human experience that changes over time, rendering listening as an historical phenomenon? Has something changed over the past century in our perception of the musical experience?

The oldest piece in this concert, and its closing work, was written at the end of the 19th century. It is the best known and perhaps the most candidly philosophical work of the four on tonight’s program. Richard Strauss was influenced, as were many in his generation, by Nietzsche’s startling poetic masterpiece, the epic Also sprach Zarathustra (Thus Spoke Zarathustra). Strauss read literature and philosophy closely. His encounter with Nietzsche informed, among other things, his lifelong atheism and his skeptical attitude to an idealistic view of music as a medium of metaphysical truth. Despite his deep admiration for how Wagner wrote music, he remained skeptical about Wagner’s extravagant claims on behalf of music with regard to philosophy and politics.

As the famous opening of Nietzsche’s poem (and Strauss’ tone poem) make plain, Nietzsche’s ambition is to force us to fundamentally invert our inherited scale of values. It is not a metaphysical God or the Sun whom we should worship and feel beholden to. Rather it is the Sun who should be grateful to the human individual, for only humans create value and meaning. If it were not for someone to shine on, the Sun would have neither purpose nor meaning. It is not God (our invention), the heavens, or our soul that is of greatest value, but the body, the physical, the time bound, mortal character of real human existence on earth that is our greatest gift and merits celebration. It is we, after all, who have invented the idea of the soul. Our very mortality and earth-bound world permit us to love, sense beauty, and think. The glorious, triumphant, and sensual opening (made famous by Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey) of Strauss’ tone poem is not a musical depiction of the sun rising, but is rather the bold expression of an individual imagination that helps vest what we see with a grandeur that is not inherent in what is out there, but exists only in the act of lending experience meaning. What Strauss drew from Nietzsche is the conviction that the making of art, and music in particular, was the highest and most fully human expression of greatness and the most powerful medium by which to define, represent, and conjure human reality and experience. As Strauss traverses Nietzsche’s poem, he displays his unrivaled command of musical thought and sonority to evoke the language, events, and ideas of the text, and to match the poetry with a musical interpretation as moving, beautiful, and dramatic as the literary text itself.

Next in chronological sequence is the late Gunther Schuller’s best known orchestral work, the Seven Studies on Themes of Paul Klee. Written in the late 1950s, a half-century after Strauss, Schuller’s concerns were more formalist in nature. Schuller, an eclectic and astonishingly versatile modernist composer, explored the formal parallels between music and the visual arts. By the mid-twentieth century, modernist painting rejected the illusions of visual realism, in which art gave the viewer the sense of seeing some “objective” external reality or seeing how the painter saw external reality subjectively. Consider a portrait, a landscape, or a genre scene. The most aggressive retreat from any such connection between representation and the clearly artificial frame of a painting was abstraction and non-objective art, both of which sought to celebrate the self-referential formal elements of the visual as autonomous and divorced even from an impressionist or expressionist subjective response to the external world. In Klee, Schuller found a painter who sought to do something similar to what modernist composers in the twentieth century hoped to achieve: a distancing from any overt inherited connection between musical rhetoric—the shape of melodies and the use of rhythm and harmony—and ordinary meaning. Music ought not illustrate or represent reality in any manner reminiscent of realist painting. Music had to become free of overt mimesis and create new meaning within the framework of its own elements and practices, using sound, silence, and time. Klee, who was also a fine musician and a devoted listener, found inspiration for his visual creations in music, and Schuller, in turn, took inspiration from Klee’s unabashedly “musical” approach to painting.

Henri Dutilleux, one of the great composers of the late twentieth century, in his song cycle Correspondances explores, as Byron Adams points out, not only the link between language and music, but between the visual and music. Using the tradition of speculation about art centered in Baudelaire, Dutillieux also references letter writing. Dutillieux uses music to augment and divert from linguistic meaning and seeks to work out from language. The letter, as a medium, is the most direct form of communication; it is private writing between two people. Dutillieux explores how composed, written music can create sensibilities and meanings beyond the range of words. In letters there is a writer and a recipient: two subjective voices. In music, a unifying temporal frame is created. The writer and reader meet simultaneously, and share in a transformative reading that extends the boundaries of the text. Music neither represents nor interprets the text. Yet it reveals a nascent presence of something in words that without music never comes into being. The descriptive language about the visual experience only deepens the link between music and words. The irony in the title becomes evident. When we write, do we actually correspond, and match our understandings? Does the reading of a recipient match the intentions of the writer? If that is clearly a complex and open question, might one also ask whether there are correspondences between music and words?

Last but not least, this first ASO concert of the season presents a contemporary work by a celebrated young American composer, Nico Muhly, whose long association with the American Symphony Orchestra dates from well before he came into the limelight. Muhly’s music explores not only the nature of music, but also its potential connections to reality, to the contemporary social fabric, and the cultural conceits and expectations of audiences. What are the unique possibilities facing new music today? What functions can be ascribed to contemporary music written within the classical tradition in the context of the rich varieties of music that flourish today?

Music is not strictly mimetic in the literary sense, particularly as most famously elaborated by Erich Auerbach’s classic book Mimesis. But it is clearly in some sense mimetic of the human experience, of memory, joy and suffering, tied to concrete realities that disappear, fade, and dissolve. Music does so in a manner that neither falsifies nor hides the more familiar physical and historical dimensions of the external world. Music’s temporal nature, its capacity to be remade, reheard, and recreated, its distance from but affinity to the linguistic and the visual, may ironically make it the most profoundly mimetic, with respect to the human experience, of all the arts.

Listening for Tomorrow Today at Bard

The Millbrook Independent

By Kevin T. McEneaney

September  2015

In the United States there was once the satellite gap, a purported missile gap, and then the quite real mathematics gap as foreign professors had to be imported to teach in our colleges. There is now a classical music gap as European education at the high school level leaps beyond our lackadaisical contentment with school marching bands. And it is not only Europe, but China, Japan, and even South America now surges ahead of the U.S.in music. Leon Botstein at Bard College has arrived at a modest solution.

With assistance from the Mellon Foundation, Botstein has created a new program that connects a two-year high school diploma at Bard’s Simon’s Rock campus in Great Barrington, MA, with Bard College in Annandale-on-the-Hudson, N.Y. Instead of going to the eleventh grade, with the Bard College program at Simon’s Rock students have the opportunity to earn an Associate Degree in two years and a Bachelor of Arts in two more years.

The Orchestra Now (TŌN), a unique training orchestra and master’s degree program founded by Bard this year, is  preparing a new generation of musicians to break down barriers between modernaudiences as well as the great orchestral music, past and present. Thirty-seven graduate students at Bard's music program (separate from the Bard Conservatory program) will have free tuition plus $24,000 stipend. Final acceptance to the program remains dependent upon an audition. The TŌN Fund will assist students on the graduate level, leading to a Masters of Curatorial, Critical and Performance Studies.

The concept of The Orchestra Now will unite performers of varying ages, as in the immensely successful Sistema project of Venezuela, founded by Maestro José Antonio Abreu, whose classical music program has reached about 400,000 students. A national tour of The Orchestra Now, at prestigious venues like Carnegie Hall, will run year-round.

Early results from Botstein’s program were on display this past Saturday, September 25, 2015, at Simon’s Rock Campus when thirty-seven students performed a concert program at the professional level with astonishing results. Several players from Bard’s graduate school program accompanied younger players in the program. One aspect of such collaboration encodes the well-known phenomenon that novice musicians usually perform at higher levels when they play with advanced musicians.

Joseph Haydn’s Symphony No. 99 began the program with its four movements, stately arriving at an energetic climax. This was the first of Haydn’s symphonies to feature a clarinet and graduate student Elias Rodriguez performed with finesse, yet the orchestra itself was slightly timid. Note the position of the performers on the stage, as this was the format performance layout in the Haydn’s era.

Anna Polansky was the featured pianist for Mozart’s Piano Concerto, No. 24. She performed with lyrical grace and nuanced energy as she magically floated the more mystical aspects of the piece floating into the air around us. Here she was ably assisted by graduate student Michael Rau on first violin.

Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2 was next on the card. Cathryn Gaylord on bassoon was outstanding and it was clear that the orchestra had well-rehearsed the dynamic contrasts that this symphony demands. The orchestra played with an inspired unity as if they were a single instrument. If anyone had any doubts about Botstein’s ambitious project, here was irrefutable evidence of something amazing.

Original full story here.

Is the 'Star-Spangled Banner' Out of Place at Orchestra Concerts?


By Naomi Lewin : WQXR Host / Brian Wise

September 25, 2015

The "Star-Spangled Banner" that kicks off opening night concerts across the U.S. is often believed to be a great patriotic tradition. But some people think it's out of place and out of mood. The Fort Worth Symphony recently drew criticism over its practice of playing the anthem before every concert. A Dallas musician sounded off on Facebook that orchestra concerts were not meant to be patriotic events, and that the anthem ruined the mood a conductor was trying to set. Many others agreed.

In this week's podcast, two experts weigh in on the anthem at the orchestra. Marc Ferrisauthor of Star-Spangled Banner: The Unlikely Story of America's National Anthem, says he has no problem with the piece's appearance, which is a holdover from 9/11 in many concert halls.

"Just to shoehorn it in there just for the sake of doing it could take away from the thematic program," Ferris said. "But you don't have to do it at the beginning. You could do it after intermission. You could do it at the end." He notes that the first time it was played at a baseball game was during the seventh-inning stretch at 1918 Brooklyn Dodgers game.

Leon Botstein, the conductor of the American Symphony Orchestra and president of Bard College, is more ambivalent. "I don't think it necessarily spoils the mood," he said in the second part of the segment. "But to repeat it at every concert is a kind of cheap patriotism. It has, unfortunately, a negative effect. It's like repeating a prayer every day without understanding its meaning."

However, Botstein believes the "Star-Spangled Banner" can be effective when American orchestras play it on international tours. He also thinks it provides an opportunity for an otherwise passive audience to participate in a concert.

Ferris dismisses the notion that the anthem's octave-and-a-half range and complicated lyrics are overly challenging. "It's a real myth that this is hard to sing," said Ferris. "What, a professional singer can't remember 81 words? We're only singing the first verse."

Botstein disagrees. "The 'Star-Spangled Banner' is not a great national anthem," he said. "It happens to be ours. It's slightly unsingable and the words don't really make a lot of sense. But it is our national anthem. If the audience actually likes it, maybe it doesn't spoil the mood."

Original story here.

Bard College Launches Training Orchestra, 'TON'

Musical America

By Susan Elliott

September 10, 2015

In October, Bard College announced the launch of a new, as-yet-unnamed training orchestra that would be underway by the 2015-16 school year. Yesterday the college announced that 37 students had been enrolled in The Orchestra Now (the "O" carries an accent macron over it, thus TON is pronounced "tone"), which is to be based at Bard and perform in the New York area.

TON is a three-year, tuition-free, masters-degree program to be directed by Bard College president Leon Botstein, also a conductor and music historian. According to Botstein, TON's members are "forward-thinking artists who intend to redefine what it means to be an orchestra." They will be learning how to "curate repertoire that engages concertgoers, sparks new ideas, and attracts new audiences," he says.

Bard reports it has had hundreds of applicants for the Master in Music Degree Program in Curatorial, Critical, and Performance Studies, as it is called. They hail from corners far and wide, including Hungary, Korea, China, Japan, Canada, and Venezuela. Musicians will not only hone their artistic skills, they will also learn how to be teaching artists for future outreach efforts.

In addition to free tuition, which includes health insurance, students will receive a $24,000 stipend.

Asked how The Orchestra Now differed from Michael Tilson Thomas's New World Symphony, a high regarded training orchestra co-founded by Michael Tilson Thomas, who is still its artistic director, TON Executive Director Lynne Meloccaro responded:

"TON is not as interested in defining itself against New World Symphony or other training orchestras as it is with joining their efforts to address a serious need in American musical training. As far as I'm concerned, there aren't enough training organizations at this level in the United States. Like NWS, TON provides career musicians with the kind of practical experience they would expect to encounter as full-time members of an orchestra."

She also mentioned TON's "special emphasis on developing skills in social outreach and audience communication," although NWS certainly emphasizes that as well. Technically, the only quantitative difference between the two would be that Bard's program awards a masters degree. NWS is not a degree program; fellows attend for three years or less. Many have gone on to full-time professional orchestra jobs.

TON's 2015-16 schedule includes four concerts at Bard, three with Botstein, one with James Bagwell, who holds the title of associate conductor and academic director; three performances at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, all with Botstein. Free concerts in NYC will be led by Marcelo Lehninger (Bronx); Zachary Schwartzman (East Village); Bagwell (Brooklyn); and JoAnn Falletta (Queens).

Original full story here.


Hindemith: The Long Christmas Dinner CD review - preserves the subtlety of his last opera

The Guardian

By Andrew Clements

September 2, 2015

Though, or perhaps because, he was a very fine amateur musician,Thornton Wilder generally discouraged attempts to turn his plays into operas. But he did write the libretto for one opera, Louise Talma’s The Alcestiad, and agreed to adapt his 1931 play The Long Christmas Dinner as a text for Paul Hindemith. First performed in Mannheim in 1961, it was Hindemith’s final opera. The premiere was given in German translation, and subsequent recordings of the work have all used that version; this is the first disc of The Long Christmas Dinner to return to Wilder’s original English text.

Lasting less than 50 minutes, the chamber opera encapsulates the history of a single family, the Bayards, across 90 years, through a succession of Christmas feasts. Characters enter from one side and depart from the other as the decades and the generations roll by. It’s a subtle, wonderfully understated examination of the changing relationships within a family, and of the ways in which society is evolving around them. There are births, marriages and deaths, and finally lonely old age, and Hindemith’s score matches the light touch with which Wilder’s text deals with this complex web of issues.

The almost entirely diatonic score is continuous and interlaced with thematic connections, though embedded in it there are also miniature set pieces – a lazy waltz, a whirling tarantella – and the opening prelude is based on the Christmas carol God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen. A harpsichord gives a vaguely baroque feel to some of the textures, but the orchestration generally allows the voices to carry the narrative, in which the sextet that sends one of the sons off to the trenches of the first world war is the expressive centre of gravity.

The performance under Leon Botstein preserves that lightness and subtlety very carefully, and while it’s sometimes difficult on disc to make enough distinction between the characters (there are 11 roles, some of which are doubled here), the basic conceit of the narrative works perfectly. All the performances gel, though Camille Zamora as the two Lucias, and Sara Murphy as Ermengarde, who ends the opera imagining the family continuing without her, are a bit special.

Original full story here.

Bard College Receives Grant for First Orchestral Master’s Degree Program

All Things Strings

By Stephanie Powell

August 17, 2015

The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation has awarded Bard College a $2 million grant to go toward the launch of an orchestral music program complete with a training orchestra.

The program, Master of Music Degree Program in Curatorial, Critical, and Performance Studies, is the college’s inaugural orchestral program at the graduate level, and will be complete with a fully functioning ensemble, made up of select conservatory students, the Orchestra Now (TON).

The program will offer students a chance to train in an orchestra that is of professional caliber while earning their master’s degree. The mission, a press release reads, is to “prepare select conservatory graduates for the challenges facing the modern symphony orchestra and to produce scholars and advocates of classical and contemporary music as well as practiced members of a top grade orchestra.” TON students were selected by an audition and academic review process.

Graduate students will study three years in the program, where rehearsals will be held four to five days a week while maintaining courses two to three days a week. Courses will be taught by a combination of Bard College faculty, guest scholars, and performing artists.

 “I would like to thank the Mellon Foundation for this generous grant to our new graduate program in orchestral studies, which is modeled after the successful program of our Center for Curatorial Studies,” Leon Botstein, president of Bard College, said in a statement. “We appreciate the Mellon Foundation’s support of innovative programs such as this one, which binds together the arts and the humanities. This new program extends the same contextual approach we value in the visual arts to practitioners of music in an orchestral setting.”

TON, which will offer students the opportunity to engage in community outreach through regional concert series and community music education programs, will be in residence at Bard College.

All TON students receive a full-tuition scholarship with an additional annual fellowship stipend of $24,000 and health benefits. For more information, visit www.bard.edu/orchnow.

Original full story here.