Above: composer Erwin Schulhoff
Friday February 10th, 2017 - The American Symphony Orchestra under Leon Botstein's baton presenting a concert of music by Czech composers at Carnegie Hall. All of the works performed come from the first half of the 20th century, and reflect both the light and the darkness of those decades when monarchies fell and dictators rose up, when princesses waltzed on the precipice and young men were marched off to battle by the tens of thousands. Tonight, the painterly Novák and the cordial glow of the Suk stood in stark contrast to the troubled Martinů and the devastating Schulhoff.
Vítězslav Novák's 'In the Tatras' opened the evening. "What are the Tatras?", you may well ask...I know I did. They are part of the Carpathian Mountains that mark the border between Slovakia and Poland. Novák was an experienced mountaineer and composed this tone poem in 1902 as a reflection on his many experiences among these scenic peaks. A span of moods, reflecting the sky, the weather, and the physical demands of climbing are explored in varying rhythmic patterns and dollops of colour: 'In the Tatras' evokes a landscape dear to the composer.
The music begins softly, almost imperceptibly, with instruments one by one taking up a single note. A beautiful, somewhat sad theme develops which turns more optimistic as the music swells to cinematic dimensions. Rich brass and a delicious passage for flute and harp are heard; the music expands to a big glow.
A low rumble from the basses brings forth the horns, a sparkling harp, swirling strings: things become quite grand, with rolling snare drums and the beating timpani. An ominous passage calms and turns really lovely as violins and harps sing of a sunny day; a gorgeous viola solo ensues, and - after an interlude of strings, harp, and horn - the cello replies with its own song. The shimmering harp shines forth as the music fades back to the single note heard at the start.
Let me here mention the high-quality playing of the various principal-chair members of the ASO: some truly impressive voices were to be heard in featured passages all evening.
In Bohuslav Martinů's Symphony No. 3, it's a somewhat clandestine piano that gives the score an unusual texture. The symphony, written in six weeks beginning at the start of May 1944, at the composer's retreat in Ridgefield, Connecticut, reflects Martinů's grief over the tragedy that had befallen his homeland under the reign of Adolf Hitler. His inspiration was a four-note motif that is a signature feature of the Dvořák REQUIEM. Throughout the symphony's three movements, feelings of agitation and of grief are mixed in a veristic sonic canvas which seems to depict the helplessness, despair, and longing for relief experienced by those who live in deeply troubled times. The Martinů 3rd symphony is sometimes referred to as the "Tragic" Symphony.
A lugubrious dance marks the opening Allegro poco moderato, with restless rhythms and the announcement of the Dvořák motif. The harmonies heard are complex and veer toward dissonance. Dark dance themes abound, and near the movement's the end, two rhythms seem to be fighting with one another.
The Largo is intense, with a yearning violin set over deep celli and basses. Ominous shadows lurk everywhere, and an attempt at lyricism in a flute solo comes off as oddly macabre. The harp again has a place in the colour palette - and kudos to the excellent harpist Sara Cutler, who had a very busy evening. A string chorale brings sounds of reassurance but the onset of an insistent beat signals that all is not well; the music gets big, almost nightmarish, before eventually calming to end the Largo on a major chord.
False hope: in the Allegro finale, the music is aggressive and combative, with the snare drum sending the troops off to war. Things simmer down to a tutti viola passage, the bassoon tries a song but seems thwarted. Things turn deceptively hopeful, with a reassuring violin over pulsing accompaniment and the integrated harp, horns, and violins indicating things may not be as bad as they seem. But...that rather furtive piano suddenly slashes three times across the closing chords: hard times will prevail another year, and the after-effects of war will stretch into time immemorial.
After the interval, a total change of atmosphere with Josef Suk's Scherzo fantastique (1903) putting my ballet-loving friend Monica and I in the same sort of waltzy dreamworld that Balanchine so brilliantly evoked with his ballet to Glinka's Valse-Fantaisie. The Suk may momentarily hint at darkling clouds on the horizon, but essentially this Scherzo is a joyously swirling reflection of women in tiaras and creamy gowns and dashing men in uniform waltzing endlessly about the salle des glaces of some lost fairyland castle.
Following a witty woodwind start, the cello's song leads to the first waltz with the charming touch of a gypsy tambourine in the mix. Winds, timpani, and flute coax the dancers into a swaying section, and then the cello waltzes forth again. An ironic trilling interlude gives way to harp and winds; the music becomes ethereal with high violins. Things pause momentarily for a cello choir before waltzing on to an inevitable conclusion. Monica and I agreed: some enterprising ballet choreographer could do a lot with this music.
Erwin Schulhoff wrote his Symphony No. 5 in the encroaching darkness of 1938-1939. By the summer of 1942, the composer would die in a prison camp, not because of his Jewish identity, but because of his Soviet leanings.
Schulhoff's 5th symphony is overwhelmingly militant and threatening. Rolling snare drums seem often to depict marching soldiers or a walk to the gallows. Trumpet fanfares open the Adagio which - after faltering attempts at melody - turns dissonant and stark. The oboe is plaintive, the music broods and gets huge and dense, with the horns richly powerful. An amazingly sustained note for clarinet seems to pose a question: one which is unanswered.
The ensuing scherzo is rambunctious, with hammering xylophone and dark swirling furiant-like motifs. It becomes cacophonous in its relentlessness: aggressive and almost ugly.
The first part of the finale is a march, by turns turbulent and trudging. A great struggle is depicted in competing themes; this subsides only to re-build. A theme of duetting woodwinds provides a shred of hope which is demolished by the brass, along with agitated rhythmic onslaughts from the strings. As the music finally reaches an end, we are thoroughly depressed. This is music that serves not only as a reminder, but as a warning.
My hat's off to Maestro Botstein and his dedicated players for another finely-crafted program of music we are unlikely to hear anywhere else these days: a program that gives us as much to feel as to think about. The ASO's next performance, of Elgar's The Apostles, closes their season at Carnegie Hall on May 12th, 2017. I look forward to hearing Jennifer Check and Sara Murphy among the soloists that evening. Details and tickets here.