American Symphony Orchestra/Botstein – The Music of Walter Piston

Concertino for Piano and Chamber Orchestra
Symphony No.2
Violin Concerto No.1
Symphony No.4

Blair McMillen (piano)

Miranda Cuckson (violin)

American Symphony Orchestra
Leon Botstein

Reviewed by: Lewis M. Smoley

Reviewed: 29 March, 2011
Venue: Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York

This retrospective of the music of New England composer Walter Piston (1894-1976) was long overdue. During his lifetime he was considered one of the most important American symphonists, but was unfairly characterized as an academic composer. Although he dominated the music department at Harvard for over thirty years, and wrote prominent books on harmony, orchestration and counterpoint, his music can hardly be considered as stiff, dry and lacking in aesthetic character. Though largely self-taught, Piston studied in Paris with both Nadia Boulanger and Paul Dukas, where he acquired both a penchant for French lyricism and a thorough understanding of orchestral color. The long list of composers who studied under him includes Elliott Carter, Leroy Anderson, Leonard Bernstein and John Harbison. Stylistically, he was essentially conservative, but his music, as Elliott Carter so aptly put it, “reveals a rare combination of elegance, wit, sparkle, craftsmanship, and a fluid and persuasive flexibility in its emotional range and authenticity.”

Leon Botstein. Photograph: Steve J. ShermanThe American Symphony Orchestra program opened with a splendid performance of Concertino for Piano and Chamber Orchestra, written in 1937, a single movement that encompasses the traditional three-part form. It begins with a rollicking theme sprinkled with jaunty syncopation on the piano, which presents both of its contrasting themes. After the piano muses over the lyrical second theme, a string trio proceeds to the slower middle section with a rather thoughtful thematic variation spiced with occasional and dissonant chords. At the end of an extensive cadenza for the piano, the tempo quickens to introduce the finale. Motor rhythms drive what is essentially a clever recreation of the opening material decorated by a whirlwind of piano flourishes. Strings bring back the lovely lyrical theme from the first section until the piano urges them back to the lively first theme. Blair McMillen is a highly accomplished musician who also teaches at Bard College of which Leon Botstein is co-director. McMillen handled the many unusual twists and turns of the piano part with self-assurance and was accompanied with appropriate restraint by the ASO.

Symphony No.2 (1943) won Piston widespread recognition, a New York Critics Circle Award, and numerous performances of the work by leading American orchestras. The first movement contrasts a contemplative string theme with the breezy syncopation of a jazz-inspired idea for oboe, its jaunty rhythms rather stiffly played by the ASO. Botstein presented the score in a straightforward manner that sometimes became too stylistically formal. The Adagio begins meditatively with a floating melody on the clarinet that gives way to a bluesy chorale. Yearning strings sing to the accompaniment of tender wind sonorities. Soon the full orchestra builds as if to reach a grandiose climax, but seems to lose its way, the music projecting a sense of bitterness. To adequately convey ardent expression, the strings needed much more sonic breadth and tonal warmth. A moto perpetuo rhythm energizes the finale, and a syncopated march takes over, as if seeking combat. The English horn offers a soulful third theme. The conclusion is vibrant and life-affirming. For the most part the ASO gave a creditable reading of this marvelous work, even if concerned more with accuracy over expressivity.

Piston’s three-movement First Violin Concerto is from 1939. An Allegro energico first movement contains two principal subjects, a vigorous theme presented initially by the solo violin and a more subdued lyrical idea given first to the cellos. Respectful of Miranda Cuckson rather meager tonal projection, Botstein kept the orchestra’s dynamic range in tight control. Cuckson, an accomplished advocate of new music, displayed a dazzling technique, particularly in the long stretches of rapid figuration, and a penchant for fervent expression. During the somber Andantino movement, meandering linear material that has a searching quality gives way to a hymn-like brass chorale. Toward the close, the solo violin muses over the melodic line as darkness descends over the music in an inconclusive ending. The rollicking opening to the finale contains syncopated phrases that have the flavor of Broadway. An angular second theme introduced by the solo violin is derived from the first theme. The extensive cadenza allowed for a pyrotechnic display of Cuckson’s extraordinary dexterity, and the work closes in a wild fury.

Piston’s Symphony No.4, 1950, is in four movements – ‘Piacevola’, ‘Balando’, ‘Contemplativo’ and ‘Energico’ – a tuneful first, a metrically-complex second with hints of Copland’s Rodeo and country-fiddling, a sometimes-thoughtful, sometimes-rhapsodic slow movement that conjures up the barren vastness of a Western landscape as seen through the eyes of a sophisticated New Englander, and a vigorous finale. Although the delightful music of the ‘Balando’ came through winningly, the opening movement suffered from rhythmic rigidity and lack of expression. Botstein failed to adequately shape the slow movement and to project the music’s eerie sense of the enormous open spaces of barren land. The finale was certainly energetic but in the sectional treatment it received seemed to consist of only hills and valleys.

We are ever indebted to Leon Botstein for bringing to our attention music that is too rarely heard. Unfortunately, he seems to treat much of it in the same way. A conductor who approaches these works with a greater understanding of Piston’s style might be able to unearth not just its formalities but its special aesthetic qualities as well.

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