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The Master and his Charges

New York
Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater, Frederick P. Rose Hall
10/15/2017 -  
Jean Sibelius: Andante festivo
Anton Rubinstein: Piano Concerto No. 4 in D minor, opus 70 – Caprice russe, opus 102
Michael Daugherty: Tales of Hemingway

Zuill Bailey (cello), Anna Shelest (piano)
The Orchestra Now (TON), Neeme Järvi (conductor)

(© Courtesy of TON)

Though the orchestra named TON or The Orchestra Now was created by Leon Botstein in 2015, their last concert at the Rose Theater was my first encounter with this group of passionate young musicians.

They hail from the ranks of students from local and far-away conservatories and they are the resident orchestra at Bard College, where Dr. Botstein is the President. Botstein, a genius of an organizer and educator, conducts them regularly and makes sure they appear not only at Bard’s Fisher Center for Performing Arts but in such New York City venues as Carnegie Hall, Symphony Space, Cooper Union, Metropolitan Museum and the Rose Theater of Jazz at Lincoln Center, where I had the genuine pleasure to hear them. It would not be accurate to say I came to hear them only because of their innovative and attractive program; I was equally interested in how productive would be their cooperation with the great Estonian conductor, Maestro Neeme Järvi, a guest for that afternoon.

Well, productive it was. This was obvious from the very first solemn notes of Sibelius Andante festivo (1922/1938), where the strings were able to produce a deep, rich, burnished sound not usually associated with student orchestras. Järvi has a special, unaffected way of conducting, sometimes barely lifting his baton. I am not an orchestra player, but it seems to me that his goal was to allow them just to play and to enjoy the sounds they created. This 6-minute-long composition was originally scored for string quartet and later arranged for string orchestra joined in the last four measures by timpani. Andante festivo was also a piece that Sibelius himself conducted in the world-wide radio broadcast on Jan.1, 1939, supposedly as a greeting to the world to celebrate the New York World Exhibition. It does possess a religious character, and the phrases of a seamless repeated melody flow in and out of each other.

Sibelius was generously followed by two compositions for piano and orchestra by Anton Rubinstein, the great Russian 19th century virtuoso and composer whose only equal as a pianist was Franz Liszt. The first piece, Piano Concerto No. 4 (1864), while seldom performed, is still relatively well-known. The second, Caprice russe (1878), remains a rarity. Given Dr. Botstein’s penchant for resurrecting forgotten works, he might include this Caprice in a program of rarely performed works restored to life just to show other better known scores of, say, Tchaikovsky in context. Prior to this performance I never heard it and don’t recall it being programmed here in New York in the last few decades.

The soloist for both of Rubinstein works was Ukrainian born but American trained Anna Shelest. The orchestra sounded strangely unsteady in the opening of the concerto, though the surprisingly fast tempo settled after the crashing chords that mark the piano’s first entrance. It was obvious from there on that Ms. Shelest is a powerhouse of a pianist who was able to obliterate all the notorious difficulties of the score and who seemingly without trouble dominated the orchestra when there was a need for domination. In her virtuosity she demonstrated a big but never harsh sound, faultless finger work and not only necessary bravura but also lyricism, especially in the second movement Andante. She had passion when needed and a sufficient dose of inspiration in the poetic, expressive segments. That of course goes for both of the works on the program, though it was applied to a better effect in the Concerto.

In both concerto works, Maestro Järvi led his young charges with a sure hand, and one had to admire their skills, even if there were a few glitches. Mostly they were up to the task and played with much enthusiasm, which shone even to a larger degree in Mr. Daugherty’s composition performed in the second half of the program.

I was very pleased to hear again this nowadays infrequently performed concerto that used to be in the repertory of such giants as Busoni, Paderewski, Rachmaninov, Josef Hoffman, Joseph Lhevinne, Grigory Ginzburg, and Shura Cherkassky. It is interesting how much of its influence was absorbed by Tchaikovsky in both of his piano concertos in the placement of a grand cadenza in the middle of the work or the dance character of the last movements. Here in the Rubinstein case, the last movement is sometimes compared to a Polish dance krakowiak but is definitely closer in character to the Russian hopak.

I guess there must be a reason for the fact that the Caprice russe fell into obscurity: alas the richness of the music material, as it often happens, does not support the length of the work, where too often the piano has some gratuitous passages and sameness sets in too early in the 20 minutes it takes for the work to conclude. I was grateful to Ms. Shelest that she learned it by heart and performed it about as well as possible, but I don’t think it belongs to the most inspired works of Anton Rubinstein. His use of three Russian-sounding melodies, combining them and manipulating, though at first impressive, soon wears thin. Yes, it has glitter and relatively skillful orchestral writing that once garnered praise even from Tchaikovsky. But to my ears some works deserve the obscurity they attained.

When taking his bows with Ms. Shelest after the performance, Maestro Järvi showed his puckish sense of humor when at some point he turned toward the audience with his hand to his ear as if to show that the applause was not sufficient. The message was quickly received and Ms. Shelest received an even more enthusiastic and merited reception.

Another nice surprise came after the intermission when we heard Tales from Hemingway (2015), a relatively new four-movement suite for cello and orchestra by Michael Daugherty (b. 1954), one of the best-known among contemporary American composers. Here the composer models each of the segments – “Big Two-Hearted River”, “For Whom the Bell Tolls”, “The Old Man and the Sea”, “The Sun Also Rises” – after a well-known literary work of the great American writer, Ernest Hemingway. It is a highly dramatic, colorful, unabashedly entertaining and listenable composition, which won him the prestigious Grammy Award. I am always intrigued by music of a descriptive nature, and this suite is in a way four tone poems, each describing an event or mood taken from Hemingway’s novellas. I am also curious as to how this music would affect me if I didn’t know the story or was unaware that it is based on some literary foundation.

Even using that narrow criterion, Daugherty’s music would undoubtedly speak to me with equal strength and create an equally positive response. This is an immensely cinematic composition and the knowledge of each of the moods or fragments of Hemingway stories further elevates one’s appreciation for its power of communication. There is an obvious mastery in handling the orchestra and creating kaleidoscopic change of moods. Maestro Järvi who knows the score and performed it previously with our soloist Mr. Bailey, led the performance with a sure hand and his young musicians responded with an even stronger commitment to instrumental assurance than they achieved in the first half of the program.

Zuill Bailey, for whom the work was written and who has already recorded is for Naxos with the Nashville Symphony Orchestra and Giancarlo Guerrero, was an uncommonly convincing protagonist. He internalized the part and presented it in a very forthcoming, expansive, masterful manner. One had an impression that similarly to an actor who is expected to assume a different personality for each role, Bailey changed his own personality with each of the four fragments, with a different protagonist.

In this work and especially the last segment “The Sun Also Rises”, which is the most colorful, exciting and virtuosic, Bailey has a leading role, not unlike the solo cello in Richard Strauss’ Don Quixote. In that last movement suffused with Spanish rhythms and motifs, the cello evolves almost into a flamenco guitar and it’s being not only bowed, plucked but also tapped – did I notice a different finger tapping each time? – to reflect the mood and excitement of the arena during the bullfight.

It seems to me that Mr. Daugherty, with his Tales of Hemingway, illustrates the canvas on which the Hemingway drama takes place: the mood of the lake, of the sea, of the Spanish civil war (the chimes at the end) or the bullfight. He does it in a most absorbing and engaging manner and audiences love it. After my first encounter with this de facto cello concerto I have no doubt that Mr. Daugherty will be thanked on both sides of the concert stage, first by cellists whose contemporary repertory will surely expand with his new cello concerto, and then among the listeners who will certainly find in “Hemingway” an absorbing, approachable and highly entertaining work. The composer was with us that afternoon and received well deserved applause.

Mr. Järvi and Mr. Bailey conferred for a moment and decided on an encore. I expected a repeat of one of the shorter movements of the work we just heard, but the two went slightly further back and for the second time that afternoon we heard the opening work on the program, the Sibelius Andante festivo, this time with the cello solo and even richer, more creamy strings. It was a nice way to end this surprisingly rewarding concert.

I know that TON is by nature a very democratic institution and it is lovely that the young musicians interact with their audiences and share their thoughts on music from the stage. I also know that in the past, during any event where Dr. Botstein was involved, “we the audience” could expect superb program notes, well researched, well written and truly informative. I wish these young musicians had returned to tradition and abandoned that nice, friendly talk from the stage – which alas will NOT remain with the listeners after they depart – and will not substitute for the program booklet that you can take home and read. Will someone register this modest request that was voiced not only by this reviewer?

As aside I will add that there were two Järvis in the hall: the younger one, Paavo was in the midst of leading the New York Philharmonic the very same week and needless to say came to see his dad in action. I was not able to establish where that afternoon was the third of the conductors in the family, Kristjan.

Roman Markowicz



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