Wednesday December 10th, 2014 - The American Symphony Orchestra presenting REQUIEM FOR THE 20th CENTURY, a memorial in music to those lost in some of the greatest tragedies of the 1900s, paid tribute by composers who lived through them.
The art of warfare changed radically over the course of the 20th century. The age-old tradition of opposing armies clashing on a field of battle, of cities under siege, and of naval vessels trying to sink each other on the high seas gave way to weapons of mass destruction which caused vast numbers of civilian deaths and the leveling of great cities into toxic rubble. Tonight's concert stood as a reminder of these grim instances of man's inhumanity to man, and of the downward spiral in which we now find ourselves where stories of racism, police brutality, injustice, religious zealotry, torture, ignoring of basic human rights for political expediency, the rape of our mother planet, and a decline of basic civility and of compassion erode mankind's dignity on a daily basis.
Ralph Vaughan Williams' Symphony No. 6 was composed in 1946–47, during and immediately after World War II. This symphony was first performed on April 21st, 1948. Within a year it had received some one hundred performances, including the US premiere on August 7th, 1948. Leopold Stokowski, who conducted the first New York performances the following January with The New York Philharmonic, said "...this is music that will take its place with the greatest creations of the masters."
Vaughan-Williams often denied any programmatic intentions in writing his 6th symphony, which opens tempestuously. Throughout this Allegro, rhythmic variety holds our interest: march-like syncopations and jazzy elements give way to a stately theme before returning to a stormier feeling. In the Moderato second movement, a creeping sense of menace sets in; this builds inexorably to a broodingly powerful climax where a three-note figure is endlessly repeated by brass and percussion.
As this pounding wave subsides, the first of many solo phrases (expertly played tonight) come to us rather unexpectedly: plaintive English horn, ironic saxophone, warbling flutes, and a quietly expressive bass clarinet. The concluding Epilogue ambles a bit, though still intriguing with its misterioso trembling in the strings and muted brass voices. The symphony fades like a memory, sinking to near inaudibility.
In 1944, at age 21, the Hungarian composer György Ligeti was sent to a forced-labor camp; of his family, only the composer and his mother survived the war. He later said, “One dimension of my music bears the imprint of a long time spent in the shadow of death.” His Requiem, written in 1965, became widely known after film director Stanley Kubrick used parts of it - without the composer's prior knowledge - in “2001: A Space Odyssey.”
The Requiem is a bizarre and unsettling work. In the opening Introitus, the chorus bassos vie with one another to produce the lowest notes imaginable. Later, as the rest of the chorus join in, the vast assortment of pitches sounding in unison produces the effect of an enormous buzzing hive of humanity.
The work calls for two vocal soloists, and tonight's artists coped impressively with the demands Ligeti placed on them. Mezzo-soprano Sara Murphy produced ample, steadily-sustained tones at tricky, almost random-sounding intervals whilst soprano Jennifer Zetlan plucked amazing notes out of the highest range with deft marksmanship and thorough command.
Overall the Ligeti Requiem mirrors the despair of mankind; it is not an easy piece to listen to, but one listens on with a feeling both haunted and terrified.
After the interval, a powerful oratorio commemorating an unspeakable human tragedy: performed only once during the composer’s lifetime, Alfred Schnittke’s Nagasaki draws on the poetry of Russian and Japanese authors to commemorate the fateful dropping of an atomic bomb on the Japanese city. The work was written in 1958 while Schnittke was a 24-year-old student at the Moscow Conservatory. Nagasaki was so controversial at the time that, after a single radio broadcast performance in 1959, it was not heard again - as far as we know - until 2006, in Cape Town, South Africa.
In this work I was expecting something more stark and angular; instead the young composer seems to have peered into the past for musical inspiration: not simply to Shostakovich and Stravinsky, but back further to Mussorgsky and even Borodin. The music actually kept reminding me of Puccini's TURANDOT with its exoticism and harmonic colours, and its continual employment of percussion instruments to punctuate and detail the forward-moving score. The effect is cinematic, and the use of chimes, celesta, and the uncanny 'voice' of a musical saw all keep the ear constantly engaged. The Bard Festival Chorale have much to do in the Schnittke and they did very well by it.
A high point in the concert came in a finely-crafted 'aria' which Schnittke assigns to a solo mezzo-soprano voice. Tonight Sara Murphy (above) expanded on the excellent impression she had made in the Ligeti: her voice has depth and warmth; it's even and glowing throughout the range, and fills the hall effortlessly. Her singing has a rich emotional resonance which derives from the sound itself, free of theatrical embellishments. This was some of the most soul-pleasing vocalism I have heard in the past decade. She was enthusiastically cheered as she took her bows.
Kudos to Maestro Botstein for giving us yet another highly satisfactory programme: thought-provoking music which, though inspired by past tragedies, is very much of our time. We are left wondering if mankind has learned anything from the lessons of the 20th century.