Carnegie Hall, New York; October 26, 2012—American Symphony Orchestra conductor Leon Botstein deserves tremendous credit for keeping this ensemble going, and for giving it a distinct identity at a time when the market is glutted with orchestras all playing the same stuff. A distinguished scholar and educator, his programs have proven to be consistently imaginative and daring, but also approachable for audiences. His lectures and intelligent program notes consistently enliven and enlighten his repertoire choices. There is, however, one big problem: he’s a conductor of very limited ability, and this fact compromises much that he and his organization might otherwise achieve. His limitations were everywhere in evidence during this hopelessly ambitious program of Ives’ Fourth Symphony and Mahler’s massive Eighth.

On paper, the pairing was certainly intriguing: two large, very difficult symphonies by composers who were actually contemporaries, both of which were championed by ASO founder Leopold Stokowski. He gave the Mahler its U.S. premiere with the Philadelphia Orchestra, and the Ives received its world premiere under the legendary maestro’s baton with his newly founded American Symphony Orchestra, assisted by two other conductors. Putting the two pieces together on the same program, preceded by Stokowski’s typically lush arrangement of “The Star Spangled Banner”, would have taxed any orchestra, as well as Stokowski’s own baton wizardry. Under the circumstances, Botstein never really stood a chance.

The first movement of the Ives is a brief prelude, and it went well enough. Next comes a huge phantasmagoria of marches, folk tunes, and cacophonous ideas that, in this performance, passed by as a muddle. There are melodies in this music, and they need to pop to the surface now and then, but Botstein seemed unable or unwilling to bring them into focus. Consequently, much of the movement’s humor and color was simply lost. The brass section, in particular, was far too timid. He then raced through the third-movement fugue (Botstein is positively allergic to slow tempos), before taking a more sensible approach to the finale. Kudos to Botstein for actually including Ives’ Theremin part, but details like this count for little when so much else comes across as tentative.

If the Ives sounded shallow and under-rehearsed, the Mahler was positively catastrophic. First, the good news: both the Brooklyn Youth Chorus and the Collegiate Chorale were very well prepared and sang beautifully. They and their directors, Dianne Berkun and James Bagwell respectively, were responsible for all of performance’s highlights. The eight soloists also performed admirably and consistently, although they were handicapped by being placed behind the orchestra, particularly when Botstein seemed unable to obtain genuinely quiet playing from the orchestra while accompanying them.

Accordingly, the mostly choral first part of the Symphony went surprisingly well. The antiphonal positioning of the adult choir, on stage and in the balconies left and right, was particularly effective. However, this first movement doesn’t so much require the gifts of a conductor as much as it does mere crowd control. Botstein set a good tempo at the start and basically stuck with it through to the end. If he ran roughshod over the gentler passages for the soloists it seemed a small price to pay for the thrills at the climaxes.

At the start of the second part, disaster struck. As readers familiar with the work will know, this setting of the closing scene of Goethe’s Faust begins with a lengthy orchestral prelude, “Poco adagio”. Not only was the tempo far too fast, but Botstein could not get the orchestra together in what is, really, extremely simple music in a theoretically slow 4/4 rhythm. They broke down, and Botstein started over from the beginning. Same result. He stopped again, half turned to the audience and said something like “too fast a transition,” whatever that meant. The third time began more promisingly, then the ensemble fell apart in each of the louder outbursts. It was sad, disheartening, embarrassing, and 100 percent Botstein’s fault.

As a result of his indecipherable beat and refusal to play slow music slowly, the initial chorus was a scramble, but once the solo arias began the performance settled down. Botstein dashed through the instrumental interlude at the appearance of the Mater Gloriosa, but puzzlingly trudged through the one spot in the movement that really needs to move: the trio of the Three Annoying Women, which in this case became the Annoying Trio of Three Women because the singing was actually quite good. It was just the wrong place to attempt to inject all of the “expression” that hitherto had been lacking. By the time Botstein arrived at the concluding Chorus Mysticus, it seemed that everyone was out of sorts. He botched it yet again, with soloists and chorus running ahead, or behind, or something in between. It was a sorry tribute to Stokowski that did no credit to the legacy of the American Symphony Orchestra.

This train-wreck of a performance raises some very serious questions about the future of this organization. Its survival largely has been thanks to Botstein’s efforts on many different levels; but at the end of the day musical quality has to count for something. Among the great ideas surrounding this gala concert was the decision to charge 1962 ticket prices, starting at $1.50 and running all the way up to $7.00. Certainly the audience, which was unfailingly polite and enthusiastic, got its money’s worth. But as I was leaving the hall I overheard two women speaking to each other, one of whom said, “I have such a headache.” The other nodded in agreement, and I could only sympathize.