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The Secret Garden

New York
Avery Fisher Hall
04/02/2004 -  
Arthur Sullivan: Overtura di ballo
Frank Bridge: Isabella
Edward Elgar: Sea Pictures
Charles Villiers Stanford: Symphony # 3

Susan Platts (mezzo)
American Symphony Orchestra
Leon Botstein (conductor)

“Sea-birds are asleep,
The world forgets to weep”

Roden Noel

Much of the music of 20th century England is pastoral in nature. As a conscious reaction to the horrors of the Boer and Great Wars, a movement developed to soften English music through the use of folk and pastoral themes. Musicians sought solace in the rich tradition as the folk collections of Cecil Sharp and the revival of Morris dancing became popular. Pastoral poetry by A. E. Housman and Thomas Hardy was set to music to emphasize the lost innocence of modern British society. Many composers participated in this movement including Hubert Parry, Herbert Howells, Rutland Boughton and Ivor Gurney. Examples of works from the pastoral movement include Elgar’s The Severn Suite and Holst’s Cotswold Symphony. A common element in the music of Delius, Holst, Finzi, Bridge, Moeran and Vaughn Williams is its wistful quality. This music seems to long for a simpler time and place and manifests this longing in evocations of “merrie olde England” and music of the countryside. Delius’ On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring, North Country Sketches, Brigg Fair, and A Village Romeo and Juliet are all pastoral settings. The instrumental music of Moeran uses folk song to conjure up the rural scenes of Ireland and England. Vaughn Williams’ Symphony # 3 may be his “Pastoral Symphony” but many of his unprogrammatic symphonies also evoke the countryside and its nostalgic elements. He was another proponent of British folk song and wrote such pieces as A Folk Song Suite, Fantasia on Sussex Folk-Tunes, Five Variants of “Dives and Lazarus”, Shepherds of the Delectable Mountains, and Fantasia on Greensleeves, a piece that epitomizes that peculiarly English concept of the combination of nostalgia for a time that never really existed with a romanticism of life in the countryside. Arguably Vaughn Williams’ most beautiful work, The Lark Ascending, for solo violin and string orchestra is a pastoral paean wherein the violin imitates the lovely song of the lark and drifts further and further upward each time that it appears. Its ascension to heaven, reminiscent of the violin solo in the second movement of Brahms’ Symphony #1, beautifully embodies man’s longing for a natural state which will bring him ultimately to the kingdom of God.

But whence all of this beautiful music? Goodness knows that we in New York never hear any of it (cf. my editorial in these pages of April 20, 2001 entitled “What We Are Missing”), but we also certainly don’t experience its antecedents in any meaningful live performances. Once again, it takes the scholarship and curiosity of Leon Botstein and his American Symphony Orchestra to do the digging. In a splendid program dubbed “Victorian Secrets”, these formidable archaeologists unearthed another set of beautiful buried treasures for all to enjoy. The bill of fare consisted of one relatively well known set of Elgar songs and three obscure works that are plainly imitative of other composers: the Arthur Sullivan (Offenbach), Frank Bridge (Liszt) and Charles Villiers Stanford (Brahms). Derivative to be sure but, as Jerry Seinfeld would say, not that there is anything wrong with that.

Most important was the excellent performance quality. Who wouldn’t love such a rousing overture as this particular pre-Gilbert Sullivan? The ensemble delivered a very high energy rendition, an overture that actually got the blood pumping and the saliva flowing for the treats to come. The Bridge piece tells the story of Isabella, by way of Keats by way of Boccaccio, who fertilizes her basil plant with her lover’s head (what a tangy pesto sauce that must have made!). Here the ASO strings were incredibly lush; this orchestra just sounds better and better. The Sea Pictures were also top notch, the husky-voiced Susan Platts delivering a poignant and inspiring performance, although a bit quiet for proper balance with the orchestra. Ms. Platts was rousing in the two courageous numbers (3 and 5) and this listener was especially affected by the sensitive conducting of Professor Botstein in ”Where Corals Lie”. A previous commitment prevented me from staying for the Stanford, but that’s all right because I have already heard the Brahms Fourth.

So the secret is out: these works are worthy of study. Now if only the bigger and more important secret could be shared: that the American Symphony is the most interesting and vibrant orchestra in this otherwise self-satisfied town.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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