Leon Botstein, violinist, conductor, and thirty-year president of Bard College, gave an amazing lecture on Wednesday to celebrate the upcoming merger between the Longy School of Music and Bard College. The lecture ranged widely through the connections between education in modern times and the place of music in both free and repressive societies. His vision for Bard – and for the synergy between Bard and Longy – is not just to prepare students to function in the world they live in, but to engage and motivate them to actively improve it. And music – the kind without words – has an important role to play. Because its meaning is can only be formed in the mind of a listener it is inherently subversive, but impossible to censor. It can be loved both by tyrants and radicals, but its inherent message is individual freedom.
These ideas resonated on Thursday, May 5, when we were treated to an outstanding concert in Sanders Theater by the Bard orchestra, including among other pieces, Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony. Written in the period Shostakovich was isolated and shunned, the symphony found favor with Stalin (both Stalin and Hitler were music lovers) and restored Shostakovich’s place in the musical life of the Soviet Union. Yet it spoke to me – perhaps through Botstein’s conducting – of the terror of repression.
I had no idea of what to expect when I walked into Sanders — perhaps something like a smaller version of the Harvard Radcliffe Orchestra. But Bard has a music conservatory, which requires a dual degree in music and liberal arts and attracts students from all over the world. There on stage was an enormous orchestra of young faces with a palpable intensity and unity of purpose. Seven French horns, six double basses, a huge brass section, and strings galore filled the Sanders stage. Where do you get seven fine horn players in a 2,500-student college in Annandale New York? (The answer, from the program book, might be Hungary.) Karen Zorn, the president of Longy, dedicated the concert to Roman Totenberg, at one time the president of Longy and the teacher of Leon Botstein. She introduced a short film about Totenberg, after which Botstein strode on stage.
He is an enormous presence on the podium, a huge man with powerfully expressive gestures. I cannot imagine a player not paying attention to him. And pay attention they did. The concert opened with an early work, Concert Overture, by Karol Szymanowski, written in the style of Richard Strauss before Szymanowski had found his own voice as a composer. Szymanowski was a friend and mentor to Totenberg, who premiered several of Szymanowski’s compositions. The piece was a heroic tone poem based on a work by Polish Poet Tadeusz Micinski, sonically a cross between Don Juan and Till Eulenspiegel. It was Strauss – but very good Strauss – and well worth hearing. From the first notes it was apparent that this was no HRO. The musicians played at a very high level of professionalism, with an unquestioned uniformity of intonation and precision (especially the brass). Amazing what dedication and adequate rehearsal will do! And they could both listen and follow the conductor. The brass and percussion could have easily overwhelmed the strings, but the balance was always gorgeous. Wonderful to have such power, and know how to keep it in check.
The second piece was “Unforgettable” a 2009 composition by George Tsontakis, composer in residence at Bard. This was a concerto for two violins and orchestra, played by two young undergraduates, Fangyue He and Yue Sun. The violins did not play with traditional back and forth, but simultaneously, twisting around each other like two vines. The title, from the Nat King Cole classic, establishes the piece as in Jazz style, containing complex poly-rhythms. This is not an easy style for a classically-trained orchestra, and on the whole it did not quite work. The two violinists played the notes as written in the score – with some verve. I think it may have been intended to sound like two Jazz fiddlers improvising together, but it did not, quite. The middle movement, a rhythmic scherzo, came off pretty well when it got going, and the last movement began to sound (at least harmonically) a bit like the Szymanowski – an interesting pairing.
The third piece was Rapids, composed by Joan Tower, professor of music at Bard, in response to a request by Ursula Oppens for a technically challenging piece. The pianist was another undergraduate – Shun-Yang Lee, who played with great virtuosity. The excellent program notes – written by another undergraduate, David Bloom – claim the intense forward motion of the piece comes from the soloist. But in this case the unstoppable beat that powers the piece came from Botstein. The piece was short, powerful, and fun.
The real treat came with the Shostakovich Fifth. It opens with ominous sounds in the bass, and a lament in the strings. From the first notes it was obvious that these young players understood what was to come. The lament was heart-rendering, the low horns menacing, every instrument in balance and heightening the mood. The second and third movements were equally powerful. Even the dances in the in the second movement had an ominous quality – as if the dancers were being made to perform against their will. The last movement, for all its major key heroics, had terrifying atonal screams strewn about it. The music was subversive indeed. This was easily the most moving performance of this amazing piece that I have heard. Special credit goes, of course, to Botstein, but he had the help of some magnificent playing by his soloists, particularly the first horn and the flute. At least from where I sat in the third row of the parquet the sound in Sanders greatly added to the excitement. When half-full the reverberation time at mid frequencies is about two seconds, and yet the close average seating distance and the lack of a stage house keeps the sound crystal clear. The result is awesome. Alas, the tongue-and-groove construction sucks up the bottom octave of the bass – but the six bass viols, contrabassoon, tuba, and bass drum made up for the lack of resonance. All in all, it was a memorable concert. I look forward to future concerts, when this remarkable orchestra will undoubtedly receive the large audience it deserves.
David Griesinger is a Harvard-trained physicist who is eminent in the field of sound and music. His website is here.