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The American Symphony Orchestra’s 50th Birthday Celebration: Leon Botstein Conducts Ives’ Fourth and Mahler’s Eighth

Leopold Stokowski

Leopold Stokowski

The American Symphony Orchestra’s 50th Birthday Celebration
Leon Botstein, Music Director

October 26, 2012, 8 pm
Carnegie Hall

Blair McMillen, piano
Rebecca Davis, soprano
Abbie Furmansky, soprano
Katherine Whyte, soprano
Fredrika Brillembourg, mezzo-soprano
Susan Platts, mezzo-soprano
Clay Hilley, tenor
Tyler Duncan, baritone
Denis Sedov, bass
Brooklyn Youth Chorus
The Collegiate Chorale

John Stafford Smith – The Star-Spangled Banner (arr. Leopold Stokowski)
Charles Ives – Symphony No. 4
Gustav Mahler – Symphony No. 8

Leopold Stokowski seemed to float in and out of Carnegie Hall last Saturday evening, as Leon Botstein led the American Symphony Orchestra in their festive—and massive—50th birthday celebration. In fact Maestro Botstein made it perfectly clear that the concert was as much about the founder as it was about the orchestra in his introductory talk and in his important program note, available on the ASO site. The American Symphony Orchestra was the fruit of over twenty-two years of short-lived attempts by Stokowski to found orchestras which put into practice a few ideals that were dear to his heart: bringing American-born and -trained musicians into the mainstream of classical music, to make orchestral concerts easily and inexpensively available to working people, and to play repertory outside the most familiar classics. His opportunity create such an institution in a lasting form (In the past they had dissolved amidst quarrels with his boards.) came with the departure of the New York Philharmonic from Carnegie Hall in 1962, as the acoustically disastrous Philharmonic Hall at Lincoln Center was ready to open. He was then eighty years old. With its primary raison d’être gone, the beloved landmark itself was endangered, as developers gleefully plotted its demolition. While the preservation battle over Carnegie effected an historical change in the way New York treats its architectural patrimony, Stokowski’s American Symphony Orchestra, originally financed by a single benefactor, Samuel Rubin, brought something new and fresh into the hall itself. Stokowski remained Music Director of the ASO for ten years, then moving back to his native England, where he lived for another five. During that time, he conducted many premieres and forgotten works of the past. It is possible that Stokowski’s work stimulated the adventurous opening of the repertoire which expanded through the 1960s and 70s—thereafter sadly to contract again. At the very least it was exemplary and a very much a stimulant. What a pity that it didn’t last. Most major symphony orchestras today are entrenched in a repertoire that would have been considered conservative in the 1930s, when Stokowski was most actively pressing the envelope.

One of Stokowski’s great achievements was his 1965 premiere of Charles Ives’ Fourth Symphony. Hitherto no more than a somewhat ominous legend, the symphony appeared in its full glory, an event which changed the lives of many musicians and music lovers. He and the ASO repeated the historic performance for a Columbia Records studio recording, which has remained fundamental ever since. There could be no more perfect tribute to Stokowski’s work with the ASO in the 1960s.

The concert began with Stoki’s personal take on the American national anthem. People younger than fifty may not know that it was once the custom to begin concerts and theatrical presentations with this national anthem, during which the audience stood up and placed their hands over their hearts. This fell into disuse over the course of the 1960s. This gave us a chance to sample the famous Stokowski string sound, clearly detectable, although Botstein adhered to his usual split strings. (Stokowski is erroneously credited with inventing the massing of the first and second violins at the left, supposedly a device to give the Philadelphians a richer sound in the dryish Academy of Music acoustics.)

Ives’ Fourth is also a favorite of Maestro Botstein himself, and he attacked the monster confidently and in his own, un-Stokowskian way. The ASO strings returned to their plain sonority of today, and the orchestra produced a relatively fast, compact performance which stressed architecture and clarity. Botstein followed the forward thrust of Ives’ writing, stressing its continuity and logic. Ives’ excursions, either referential or fanciful, like fireworks over a handsome prospect, still clearly visible in their light. The symphony seemed shorter and more contained than usual, and the dynamics were more restrained. The last time I heard the work was with the Boston Symphony under Alan Gilbert. In this, one felt engulfed by a mountainous wave of sound. Not so in Carnegie Hall. The symphony seemed to stay in its place behind the proscenium, more like a vast landscape depicted in a framed painting—but no ordinary painting or ordinary frame, rather some gigantic magnum opus by Church or Bierstadt. Botstein’s reading was more remarkable for its insight than its ambition to overwhelm. There was certainly nothing disappointing in that. I rose for the intermission another revelation forward on my Ivesian pilgrimage.

In his introductory talk, Botstein stressed a point with which I could identify especially strongly—that is, the ongoing discussion about the fundamental quality of Mahler’s symphonies and of the Eighth in particular. As readers of other reviews of Mahler symphonies I have written know, I cannot avoid a feeling of ambivalence when I hear almost any of Mahler’s works. This doesn’t mean that I haven’t been moved by an effective performance now and again, or impressed by how well put together some movements are. One problem is that, in spite of the sophistication of his harmony and orchestration and his ironic use of it in setting deliberately banal thematic material of a popular origin, he is a fundamentally backward-looking artist. He embedded himself in the literary culture of some three generations before his time, above all the Romantics’ explorations of folk traditions. Schumann had already worked with this on a more essential level in his own carefully thought-out mixture of folksong and art music, in which he avoided compromising the identity and intellectual rigor of art music, while introducing a sense of antiquity and tradition, above all the national character, which was one of the fundamental issues nineteenth century Germans believed they had to honor and nurture. Mahler looked back on this, deciding to allow popular music to show its own character, not only in song cycles, but in symphonic works, mediating it with symphonic convention through unexpected dissonant harmonies and parodistic orchestration. Is Mahler really travelling into new musical realms in this, or is he in fact creating piquant effects? It would be easier to know if one understood Mahler better as a person.

Botstein observed that this is the most difficult task of all. Mahler commanded exceptional authority as a conductor. His compositions, which he wrote during his summer vacations from his conducting duties, embody both his confidence as one of the great masters of the orchestra, as well as his rather miserable private life, in which he had to live with the premature death of a child, a monstrous wife, and illnesses, both mental and physical, aggravated by his obsessive hypochondria. Whatever his inner nature, Mahler was most definitely not a thinker. Curiously, Mahler’s music especially appeals to intellectuals, and they tend to see him in their own image, confusing effect-making—or fancy, depending on how one takes it—with musical thought.

A performance of the Eighth is not an every day occurrence. Whether a particular performance lives up to its partially deceptive sobriquet, the “Symphony of a Thousand,” or not, its vast array of expensive forces does impress. All this notwithstanding, one may well ask, after the last poignant notes have faded away, just what do we find in these two colossal movements, especially in a clear, sober, intellectually conscious performance like this one? If one listens to them as symphonic movements, one can only be impressed by the energy and scale of the music, as well as the coherence of the writing. On the other hand, if one considers the texts, their background, and the music as settings of them, questions arise. It’s impossible to avoid this, since the predominance of chorus and soloists in both movements has tempted many commentators to describe the work as a cantata as much as a symphony. One could equally consider it an oratorio, especially the second movement.

In the first movement Mahler has taken the beloved Latin hymn, “Veni, Creator Spiritus” out of its well-defined, if versatile liturgical context, and used it as words for a stirring symphonic movement with elaborate development, rich counterpoint, a fast basic tempo alternating with more lyrical interludes in broader tempi, and large forces. In liturgical use it is largely sung at beginning of things: ecclesiastical offices (the election of popes, the consecration of bishops, the ordination of priests), the dedication of churches, academic terms, synods or councils, the coronation of kings, as well as at vespers and at Pentecost. In essence it is an invocation of the life-force, specified within the parameters of the Holy Trinity, with a prayer requesting perception, love, health, virtue, peace, and the universal desire, protection from the enemy and disaster. If this meant something to Mahler as a Catholic by conversion, there is no trace of it in his setting, but there are so many close parallels in non-Christian traditions, as well as in the Psalms, that the hymn can be understood as pretty much universal. And, if Mahler showed little interest in a close reading of the venerable hymn, he certainly did not neglect the concept of vitality in his composition. Was there something radical in presenting it as a secular, possibly pantheistic credo in conservative, Catholic Munich, where the Eighth had its much-publicized premiere?

The plain, dusky sound of the ASO strings and their clarity of texture pointed to a treatment of the score as a modern work rather than as a late Romantic one. Above all, the Collegiate Chorale, as one would expect under James Bagwell’s direction, sang with impeccable articulation and clarity, opening up the score in a most gratifying way. Botstein’s pace was not excessively fast, like Bernstein’s, animated but steady, avoiding marked shifts in tempo. One could appreciate above all Mahler’s skill in construction and counterpoint. It was an honest performance that challenged us to listen to the symphony with an alert mind. Botstein scrupulously avoided letting Mahler play any tricks on us. Years ago, when I graduated from Bernstein’s Mahler recordings to Haitink’s I realized that a straightforward, even restrained approach to Mahler serves the composer well. Mahler’s own protégé, Otto Klemperer, favored this. Hence I found myself very much in sympathy with Dr. Botstein’s interpretation.

The final scene of Goethe’s Faust, Part II enjoys its own veneration in German culture. There are those of us—above all Anthroposophists—who identify with Goethe’s transcendent vision as a part of their personal worldview, and there are educated readers who will savor it as a magnificent fruit growing on a vigorous branch of German thought and literature. We read it primarily, since very few theater companies have taken on the challenge of producing both parts of Faust in their entirety. Mahler had the good sense to realize that even this final scene would be too long for his purposes, and he made modest cuts, primarily in the Chorus of Blessed Children, a transposition, and a reassignment of a part of a single speech of the Doctor Marianus to the Chorus, all serving the musical and dramatic effectiveness of his “libretto” rather than any particular interpretation of Goethe’s scene.

Botstein’s forward impulse and unwillingness to indulge extreme tempo differences in the successive sections of the movement, as well as the mediocrity of the vocal soloists, who sounded generally stressed out by the performance, both brought to the fore the economy and tightness of Mahler’s composition and reduced the emotional range of the movement. The characters of the individual beings in the gathering tended to sound more or less the same. Towards the middle sections of the movement, noticing some distraction in the body language of my companion, a professional musician and acute listener, who was new to Mahler’s Eighth, I was inclined to blame it on Mahler, although I am aware that a more dramatic and varied performance can help Mahler’s expressive devices in phrasing, tempo, and orchestration make their point. Whatever strokes of Mahler’s genius remained hidden in the exceptionally clear textures of this performance, I find the final declaration of the Chorus Mysticus especially problematic. Mahler’s setting sounds too much like a revival hymn for my comfort, and I suspect that he has reduced Goethe’s spiritual enlightenment to a matter of faith and sentiment. Only an intensely expressive and finely colored performance can overcome this. Of course there is a certain element of illusionism in this, and that was not what Botstein was after.

The ensemble broke down at one point, necessitating cessation and a restart. As in the first movement, the contribution of the Collegiate Chorale was splendid, as were the wind solos from the ASO principals. In this performance one could admire Mahler’s technique, but it was most certainly not a performance to reaffirm any opinion that it is a great work. As Dr. Botstein said, that still remains unsettled. Yet the there are certain ceremonial works which justify themselves simply by their extraordinary mass, for example Messiah and Beethoven’s Ninth. If these have earned a more uniform opinion about their quality over generations, their indispensability has little or nothing to do with their intrinsic merit, as the usually routine season closers at Tanglewood demonstrate. Stokowski truly understood the value of such works. No matter what one critically thinks of Mahler’s great beast—and there can be no doubt that Mahler was a master of large-scale composition—one leaves a performance of it with a certain feeling of catharsis, and in this case a warm feeling of gratitude for Stokowski’s final legacy and for Leon Botstein’s conscientious stewardship of it, in which every one of Stokowski’s principles has been admirably maintained. What better way to celebrate an admirable orchestra and a great conductor than with performances of such high integrity.

The Editor

The Editor

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts, an International Journal for the Arts and The Berkshire Review, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L'Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides' Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.
The Editor
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