American Symphony Orchestra/Leon Botstein – Bliss, Dallapiccola, Henze, Bantock, Roussel

Hymn to Apollo
Marsia – Frammenti Sinfonici del Balletto
Symphony No.3
The Bacchanals – Prelude [North American premiere]
Bacchus et Ariane – Suites 1 & 2

American Symphony Orchestra
Leon Botstein

Reviewed by: Lewis M. Smoley

Reviewed: 9 May, 2010
Venue: Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, New York

For its final concert of the season, the American Symphony Orchestra and Leon Botstein searched through rarely-heard repertoire to come up with five works that relate to Apollo and Dionysus. These Greek gods have been long identified with philosophical principles, mostly derived from Friedrich Nietzsche’s “Birth of Tragedy Out of the Spirit of Music”. In that controversial work, Nietzsche identified and distinguished these deities as representative aspects not only of ancient Greece’s tragic art and culture, but of divergent aspects of the human spirit. He associated Apollo with the rational element: order, law, formal perfection, clarity, objectivity, precision, self-control and individuation; and Dionysus with the irrational: chaos, emotion, change, creation and destruction, diversity, movement, rhythm, ecstasy, chaos and subjectivity. Thus Nietzsche claimed that the perfect union of Apollonian reason and Dionysian instinct was not only the primary characteristic of Greek tragedy but the basis for sound human development. Although many philologists criticized Nietzsche’s conception as it applies to the spirit of ancient Greek art, the Apollonian-Dionysian dualism has achieved some standing as reflecting two fundamental human traits in both philosophical and aesthetic perspectives.

The program divided neatly into two parts: works about Apollo in the first half, and those relating to Bacchus, Dionysus’s Roman counterpart, in the second. Several changes were made in the program as originally scheduled: the last two frammenti from Dallapiccola’s ballet Marsia were deleted, and Gustav Holst’s Hymn to Dionysus was replaced by Granville Bantock’s Prelude to ‘The Bacchanals’.

The concert began with Hymn to Apollo by Sir Arthur Bliss (1891-1975). One of several short orchestral works written early in the composer’s career after he returned from America (1926), it was revised in 1964 to reduce the orchestration. Bliss referred to the piece as “an invocation addressed to Apollo as the God of the healing art”. Typical of Bliss, the piece grows organically from the opening woodwind phrases and lyrical violin melody into a processional that celebrates the gentle nature of Apollo with sweeping gestures in diatonic harmonies and foursquare meter. It builds to a triumphant climax that radiates with light, a homage to Apollo, who was also God of the Sun. A well-considered curtain-raiser, the work was given a fine performance by all hands, the strings sounding vibrant and winds firm and resolute.

Next a rarely heard work by Luigi Dallapiccola (1904-1975), who was one of the earliest Italian composers to take an interest in Schoenberg’s twelve-tone principles. Although he has several orchestral works to his substantial oeuvre, Dallapiccola became known especially for his vocal and operatic music written in a personal style influenced by the serial method. But the music he wrote between 1942 and 1943 for the ballet Marsia shows no indication of his conversion to serialism a few years earlier. Here the impressionism of Ravel and Respighi is more apparent. The ballet is based upon a well-known classical legend of the satyr Marsyas, who discovered the music of the flute. He thought himself so accomplished that he challenged Apollo to a contest to test his skill against the god of music. Apollo shows him up when he reverses his lyre and plays without touching the strings, certainly a feat sufficient to win the contest. Nonetheless, Apollo became so angry at Marsyas’s arrogance in making the challenge that he flayed him alive. Legend has it that the tears of his mourners became a river that bears the satyr’s name. The ‘fragments’ contain about two-thirds of the score, but this performance eliminated the last two (‘Ultima danza di Marsia’ and ‘La Morte di Marsia’) and thus some of the most substantial music in the work. Dallapiccola eschews the atonal, astringent style of modernism for music of rhapsodic lyricism and nature-like freshness. It is a pity that the audience missed the rare opportunity to hear the segment on the death of the satyr, which contains some of the composer’s most impressive expressions of tragic pathos that ultimately give way to a detached serene calm befitting Apollo’s majesty. The performance captured the mysterious atmosphere conjured up in the first section and the aggressive intensity of Apollo’s anger as he dances himself into a rage.

Hans Werner Henze’s Third Symphony is typical of his early symphonic writing; although tonal it is laced with angular cross-rhythms, complex meters, scraps of figuration that tear at the musical fabric, with fierce, sometimes gripping outbursts and violent climaxes. Written when the composer was artistic director of Wiesbaden Ballet, the work clearly shows a theatrical proclivity. Its relation to the theme of the concert is apparent in the titles to its three movements: ‘Invocation to Apollo’, ‘Dithyramb’ and ‘Conjuring Dance’, each evoking the spirit of the dance in a different manner. Each movement contains a haunting trumpet motif (grace-noted dotted eighths on rising and falling fourths). From the opening measures, the first movement radiates with shimmering impressionism and lyrical string-writing that gives way to darting figures in the winds, all eventually building to a fierce climax only to return at the close to the serenity of the opening. Shifting meters (bar by bar) at the beginning of the second movement soon regularize to triple meter and scrappy rhythmic figures accompanied by shimmering figuration in flutes, xylophone and piano give way to rhapsodic string lyricism. A march-like section follows the return of these rhythmically convoluted figures in winds that build to a climax on four powerful dissonant chords. The basic conceptual premise of the movement is the dualistic contrast between the strings’ lyrical line and the winds’ acerbic cross-rhythms. Shifting complex meters also permeate the third movement. Vigorous unbalanced dance rhythms abound; jazz elements are occasionally noticeable, particularly in the tenor saxophone and trumpet parts. A few scrappy entrances and muddled contrapuntally dense segments notwithstanding, the orchestra performed this complex work admirably.

After intermission, the concert resumed with the only work on the program that has not yet been recorded, Bantock’s Prelude to his ballet The Bacchanals, completed in full score the day after Christmas, 1939. Bantock (1868-1946) was one of the few British composers of his day to derive much of his orchestral music from both ancient and esoteric foreign sources, such as Greek tragedy, the Bible and Persian and Arabic poetry. His most substantial and successful is “The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam” (1906-09). He is also known for the symphonic poems, the Hebridean Symphony and the Pagan Symphony. Stylistically, his music combines a creative approach to impressionism with a Wagnerian flair for the dramatic. Trumpets calls with a full battery of percussion and pizzicato lower strings begin the work, from which a march soon develops. A lovely violin theme leads to more vigorous music that recalls Vaughan Williams. A Baxian brass chorale blows in some stormy music in winds that gives way to an Elgarian allegro. These references to other notable English composers does not imply that Bantock’s idiom is merely derivative; he developed a personal style that often verges on the exotic. Leon Botstein is to be congratulated for including a work by Bantock in this program, even by substitution. His music deserves greater recognition and more frequent performances here.

The most extensive work on the program was saved for last. Roussel’s ballet Bacchus et Ariane. Composed in 1930 at the height of the composer’s powers, it was premiered the very next year in Paris. Its two acts are so symphonically structured that creating two suites from them required no significant changes in and few deletions of musical content. Although the influence of Stravinsky and Prokofiev is apparent, Roussel’s own style is recognizable for its incisively-edged harmonies and clipped phrases. The story is of Bacchus’s seduction of Ariadne that culminates in a bacchanalian dance and her coronation. From the vigorous rhythms of the opening, the tender lyricism that evokes Ariadne’s dream-world, the magical aura that casts a spell over the music and leads to an sensuously intense dance culminating a magic kiss, to the celebratory brass chorale of the final scene, the orchestra captured the diverse moods and handled the juxtaposition of languid lyricism and frenzied dance music impressively. Tempos were shifted with aplomb. Although violins had some difficulty cutting through the unrestrained brass in tutti passages, this remarkable and challenging work received a fine performance.

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