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Another Opening, Another Show

New York
Bard College
04/25/2003 -  
Gustav Mahler: Symphony # 3
Nancy Maultsby (mezzo)
Concert Chorale of New York
Brooklyn Youth Chorus
American Symphony Orchestra
Leon Botstein (conductor)

When the good city fathers of Vienna were searching for an artist to adorn the ceiling of the new University building, they settled on a young man of solid reputation whose star was in its ascendancy. The painter was Gustav Klimt and his portfolio up to that time was promisingly Biedermeier in orientation (see, for example, “Schubert at his Piano”). The year, however, was 1900 and Klimt was about to revolutionize the art world with his new vision of modern man. Choosing as his inspiration Nietzsche’s poem “Drunken Song of Midnight” from Also Sprach Zarathustra, Klimt fashioned his first panel, Philosophy, as a mystical embodiment of cultural relativism, a constantly shifting sand where there are no longer any absolutes, only the one endless mystery. As an emblem of changing academic atmosphere, the death of the categorical imperative, and the role of the modern institution of higher learning, this panel was remarkably prescient and perfectly timed.

The identical poem was fashioned by Gustav Mahler, at approximately the same time and place, as the solo vocal section of his Symphony # 3, premiered at the Krefeld festival as the composer’s first utterance in the new century. Klimt, who would soon become very close with Mahler since the composer, in incestuous Vienna, was about to be infatuated with and later marry the artist’s dear friend Alma Schindler, is a product of the same practical artistic upbringing as both of the Mahlers and his resulting rebellious output is inextricably linked with that of the conductor of the Vienna Opera (if one has any doubt of this, simply consider how many Mahler CD’s have Klimt paintings as their cover art). Now, in the 21st century, another academic center is unveiling a significant work of architecture by an exciting, progressive leader as Leon Botstein inaugurates the Richard Fisher Center designed by Frank Geary. What better way to start than a performance of the monumental Mahler opus with its glorious look at things to come?

Of course, not every college has a president who just happens to be a conductor of an innovative and eloquent symphony orchestra. Leon Botstein is nothing if not a big thinker. Probably his most admirable quality is that he actually gets things done, in education, in music, in the community. The new hall should be the springboard for the establishment of a fertile oasis, a new Hudson River School of creativity and enduring quality. In this project, classical music is at the cornerstone, but other arts and humanities are significantly represented. The 900-seat Sosnoff Theater will house not only the main events of the annual summer music that has already put Bard on the map, along with regularly scheduled performances of serious instrumental and chamber music throughout the year, but also pop, world and jazz, and, perhaps most importantly for the needed eclecticism of a festival town, live theatrical performance. This opening extravaganza will feature two weekends of events, including Jean Racine’s Phedre.

Much has already been written about the structure. My take on it is that its striking, metallic exterior, with jagged swoops reminiscent of the opera in Sydney, is disturbingly out of place in this bucolic setting of gently rolling hills. However, walking up to the concert, it occurred to me that the building could be thought of as a metaphor for Professor Botstein himself, challenging, thought-provoking, making everyone just a little uncomfortable in their assumptions, the oyster’s irritant. The interior of the center is surprisingly economical, early Soviet cinder block in spots and a lobby much too small for a sold out crowd, but the performance space itself is quite attractive, done up in peach with swirls suggesting the lines of clefs on the walls. The sight lines in the auditorium are excellent, a deep pitch of floor assuring totally unobstructed views, and this bodes well for opera (this summer it will be Janacek’s extremely rare Osud).

The Mahler was a mixed affair, the normally reliable American Symphony just a bit out of sync. Surely there were moments of great beauty, notably the offstage passages of the posthorn and the onstage realization of that Nietzsche song by secure mezzo Nancy Maultsby, but overall the ensemble never seemed to grasp on to the piece and wrestle it like Jacob with the angel. The fight seemed more to simply keep up, several sections, for example the duet between first horn and concertmaster in the Long March, raising the question, perhaps not unusual for a shakeout cruise, as to how well the individual musicians, jammed on the stage like Tokyo subway riders, could hear each other.

Readers from Southern California may be anxious to know about the sound in the auditorium, as their soon to be opened Disney Hall is being created by the same team of architect and acoustical engineer. Normally, I like to reserve judgment until I have experienced a venue at least three times, but, under these potentially newsworthy circumstances, I will offer the following:

The sound in general is free from distraction, no echoes or whirrs, no illusion that the listener has suddenly developed tinnitus, no major sonic gaps or black holes. However, there is a definite harshness to the finished product, an angularity more suitable to the exterior of this unique space. The lack of warmth is considerably offset by the exceptional clarity: one hears everything cleanly and, most importantly, in real time. Of course, a gigantic work like the Mahler in what is essentially a recital hall would leave even a master acoustician foundering somewhere between Scylla and Charybdis. Let’s all spend at least two more evenings before pronouncing final judgment.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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