May 3, 2018, Carnegie Hall, New York
The Orchestra Now, Leon Botstein (cond.), Peter Serkin and Anna Polonsky, pianos
Give Leon Botstein credit: as a conductor he has his ups and downs, but his programming is often both important and original. At The Orchestra Now’s most recent concert he offered a pair of unknown (outside of recordings) but eminently worthy symphonies, and capped off the evening with Bartók’s rarely heard Concerto for Two Pianos, Percussion and Orchestra. But let’s begin at the beginning.
Ahmet Adnan Saygun (1907-91) was Turkey’s most important and talented twentieth-century composer. He wrote five symphonies, and Botstein treated us to the Fourth–a short (twenty-five minutes), intense, gnarly, passionate, often violent work, colorfully scored for a large orchestra, here played with the power that the music demands, and conducted with confidence. It’s music that grows on you over time with repeated listening, and more’s the pity we probably won’t have the chance to hear it again soon. Following that, Hungarian composer László Lajtha’s Seventh Symphony, subtitled “The Revolutionary,” offered tribute to the protests against the Soviet Union’s 1956 invasion of his native land. It’s a dark, moody piece, in which dissonant outbursts alternate with uneasy lyrical interludes, often led off by soulful saxophone solos. If Botstein wasn’t quite able to pull together the somewhat disjointed syntax of the first two movements, the finale was all fire and dash, and once again the orchestra responded with a will. You’d never guess that we were hearing a group of Bard College graduate students, especially in such taxing and unfamiliar repertoire.
The program’s second half consisted of the Bartók concerto alone. This piece began life as one of its composer’s great masterpieces, the Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion, and to be fair the enlarged version with orchestra brings almost nothing new to the table. The orchestra has little to do, and in fact only tends to soften the music’s hard edges and clear textures. Perhaps this is the reason we so rarely hear it in concert. Still, aside from a couple of tenpo adjustments in the first movement that gave Botstein a moment or two of hesitation, this was a satisfying performance led by the two excellent soloists, and assisted in no small part by the superb percussion playing of two very busy members of the ensemble. Truth be told, they deserved just as much solo billing as the keyboards, as anyone who knows the piece well can attest.
Finally, a word about the presentation. Orchestra Now concerts feature brief remarks on each piece by members of the organization. Here we were obliged to listen to political screeds about islamophobia (in the case of Saygun) and the dastardly current political situation as it relates to the events in Hungary in 1956 (in connection with Lajtha). This was unfortunate, not because the orchestra members aren’t entitled to express their opinions, or because I disagree with what they had to say (I don’t), but rather because such topics can’t possibly be addressed in any depth in just a couple of minutes. Even though the audience unsurprisingly signaled unqualified approval, it would have been so much more meaningful if the players had spent their limited time talking about audible details of the actual music being performed.
If a program such as this proves anything, it should be that we don’t need to be given some larger reason to listen to great, unfamiliar music. Its relevance lies in its beauty, power, and compositional mastery, and not in its ability to make us think about something else entirely–especially not the Trump administration.