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.