I heard The Orchestra Now do a concert online on April 19 and 20, 2021. It had been live at Bard on April 10. It sounded like a small audience, it was a treat to hear actual applause in an actual concert hall. I had heard The Orchestra Now at Symphony Space in February 2020 and was impressed with their sound and especially by their programming and their eagerness to engage with the audience. The concert was conducted by TON’s music director, Leon Botstein. There were four pieces on the program:
*Ácana,* Tania León
*Serenade (after Plato’s “Symposium”),* Leonard Bernstein
Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments, Igor Stravinsky
Symphony #3 (Scottish), Felix Mendelssohn
The whole concert is on YouTube:
Tania León is a contemporary Cuban-American composer. *Ácana* opened with some bright solos by two trumpets, in a somewhat reflective mood. The strings came in with a shimmer, the trumpets continued their business, gradually doing something more involved. The strings also got more agitated, and we were off to the races. Many impressive solos for the winds, effective punctuations by the strings and percussion, and a few comments from the piano. It was dazzling, stimulating, fun. It had a tiny bit of an Aaron Copland vibe, but more spicy. Halfway through the piece the strings played something lyrical and smooth, with the marimba (or was it a vibraphone?) doing something wacko over it. Love that kind of juxtaposition. The piece ended in a complex rhythmic funk. I got the feeling the piece would be a lot of fun to play.
The Bernstein *Serenade (after Plato’s “Symposium”)* is a work for violin solo, strings, harp, and percussion. The violin solo in this performance was played by Zongheng Zhang. He had a lovely sound, he drew me in. The piece makes a lot of demands on him, which is what you want (some of the time) as a performer, and he rose to the challenge: he had the guts, the lyricism, the charisma. Best of all, he had a sense of the overall structure - - when he was simply saying something, when he was building up to something, when he was on his way down from that something. I know all of this is written into the score, but it’s up to the performer to put it across.
I loved the piece, it sounded unlike anything I’d heard before, though some of the sparkly metallic sounds in the percussion made me think of Messaien (never a bad thing). This is Bernstein being serious but not being heavy. The final movement had some classic groovy Bernstein rhythms, I found myself moving my shoulders in a sexy way.
In an interesting bit of programming, the next piece was the flip side of the Bernstein: the Bernstein was for strings with no winds, the Stravinsky was for winds with no strings. But wait, I think I saw three string bass players over on the side in the Stravinsky...
Stravinsky wrote it in 1923, in his neoclassical period. His music from this period always seems to be bristling with wit, and this piece definitely had that in spades. Another highlight of this piece is hearing Stravinsky’s genius for orchestration. I might have asked for more variety of color from Blair McMillen in his piano solo, but that could have been a problem with the sound recording. He certainly played with verve and élan.
One interesting surprise: there was a moment near the end of the first movement where things got active and frothy, then a silence - - then everyone came back in with a broad theme. This progression made me think of the Gershwin *Concerto in F* from two years later, 1925. Is it possible Gershwin got the idea from Stravinsky? Or did they both come up with the idea independently? Or did they both steal it from someone else? Please write me if you have any ideas on this subject.
Oy, the second movement had some VERY high writing for the French horns. I’m sure Stravinsky made no friends with that. The final movement was very splashy indeed. I found myself moving my shoulders again, but in a less sexy way.
I know the Mendelssohn “Scottish” Symphony is an old war horse, but I don’t think I’d heard it before. I have a lot of standard rep to discover, it seems like a good project for my 50s. I wasn’t sure I’d like it, but after all that intellectually stimulating 20th century music, it was a welcome contrast to hear something that ravished the ear!
At one point in the first movement I was starting to get a little bored, but Mendelssohn is no dummy - - we were at the development section and the harmonic progressions got rather unusual and I was interested again. The piece on the whole was laid out in a thoughtful way, with an eye on the dramatic impact but always embedded in a sense of logic, never cheap effects for their own sake.
The second movement was a darling bit of sorbet in between courses. The third movement had a few moments that looked in the direction of Wagner, but they were glimmers in this setting, flashes of drama in a warm, comforting context - - Wagner would have developed these ideas them into something expressive and hypnotic. The final movement had a grandeur that was quite satisfying.