Botstein and the ASO Exhilarate at 20

By Sedgwick Clark

Leon Botstein just ended his 20th season as music director of the American Symphony Orchestra, during which he led an opera-in-concert performance of Richard Strauss’s Feuersnot, Bruch’s oratorio Moses, a concert of English music that included Walton’s Symphony No. 2, which Botstein called “one of the great symphonies of the twentieth century” (I’d say that about his First, myself), an impressively conducted retrospective of the late Elliott Carter’s music, and an equally impressively conducted program of 1920s avant-garde music by Antheil, Griffes (hardly modern, but a lovely respite in a challenging evening), Ruggles, Copland, and Varèse. The latter two’s Organ Symphony and Amériques, respectively, were masterful. Need one add “rarely played” to modify any of these works?

His final concert of this season, on May 30, was downright exhilarating. The ASO is shipshape these days, the program featured neglected works by Reger, Bloch, Ives, and Szymanowski during World War I, and performances were largely successful. As always, Botstein’s program essay was enlightening. He still resists taking the bull by the horns and interpreting the music, apparently believing that an accurate presentation of the notes is sufficient. Max Reger’s hymn to German supremacy, A Patriotic Overture(1914), complete with nods to Bach, Haydn, Bruckner, and Brahms, was properly broad in tempo and solemn in demeanor. I might have welcomed a touch more vigor and variation, but for all I know the performance was right on the metronome mark.

Whatever happened to the music of Ernest Bloch? Perhaps his attempt to capture what Botstein calls “Jewish national aspirations” in his music has caused conductors to think that it lacks universal appeal. Not even the once-popular cello concerto,Schelomo, gets played with any frequency these days. Well, I’m as W.A.S.P. as they come, and I enjoyed Bloch’s seldom-played IsraelSymphony (1912-16)—and Botstein’s performance—immensely. Okay, the second movement (Allegro agitato, “Yom Kippur”) lacked atonement to my goyish ears. But in the outer movements, Botstein proved the Israel a moving experience.

Charles Ives composed his knotty Orchestral Set No. 2 in horrified response to the sinking of the British liner Lusitania by a German U-boat on May 7, 1915, which resulted in the deaths of nearly 1,200 passengers and led to the U.S. entrance into World War I. However noble its aspirations, I’ve always found it less engaging than the sensuous, pictorial First Orchestral Set, better known as Three Places in New England, or the wild mish-mash of the Fourth Symphony. Botstein calls No. 2 “a startlingly courageous essay in musical form, one that in its third movement highlights America’s exceptional status and dramatic entrance into a transformative historical event.” This Ives fan remains unconvinced, but not even Stokowski made much sense out of the piece.

Szymanowski’s steamy Symphony No. 3 (“The Song of the Night”) made for a resounding finale. Suffused with Scriabin, Ravel’sDaphnis et Chloé, and Szymanowski’s own personal brand of sensual orientalism, the Third is one of his most alluring works. The composer’s advocates have been predicting imminent acceptance for decades. Performances of this caliber are certainly in the right direction.