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The Search-and-Rescue Man

New York
Avery Fischer Hall, Lincoln Center
04/18/2008 -  
Gian Francesco Malipiero: Pause del Silenzio (US Premiere)
Giuseppe Martucci: Symphony No. 2, Op. 81
Ildebrando Pizzetti: Three Preludes to Sophocles' “Oedipus” (US Premiere)
Alfredo Casella: Italia: Rhapsody for Orchestra Op. 11
Ottorino Respighi: Fountains of Rome

American Symphony Orchestra, Leon Botstein (Conductor)

“I miss our gentle fascism,” sighed the Portuguese director of the Azores Music Festival to me some years ago.” The State gave us all the money we ever needed. But now…well, we have to search for funds by ourselves.”

Mussolini was hardly a “gentle fascist”, but he did repair the disintegrating Ethiopian cities (with slave labor!), and he did encourage composers who weren’t too radical. They, in turn, took pride in their Leader. Even the radical Luigi Dallapiccola stayed in Italy until Mussolini half-heartedly played his anti-Semitic card. (Dallapiccola was married to a Jewish woman.)

True, with the exception of Respighi, Dallapiccola and Maderna, those favored composers who wrote symphonic music were too middle-of-the-road for much attention these days. But Leon Botstein brought up the names of Pizzetti, Casella and Malipiero last night with his American Symphony Orchestra, and made a fairly good case for them.

For those who don’t know Mr. (Professor? Maestro? College President? Editor?) Botstein, he is the ultimate polymath, but his domain is conducting rarely heard predominantly 19th Century European music. Few in New York had heard Strauss’s The Love of Danae or The Egyptian Helen until his concert performances. The name of Hiller was restricted to some Reger Variations until a cantata some weeks ago. At times, Maestro Botstein goes too far—his concert of French composers was afflicted with a surfeit of augmented fifths—and he usually goes far over the time limit, like last night, which wasn’t finished until nearly 11:00pm.

Besides the music, Mr. Botstein’s essays putting the composers within a historical context are lucid, erudite and can show how the most trivial compositions fit into the musical pantheon. Thus, he wrote how nationalism, revolt against Italian opera, fascism and northern influences all worked together to produce the three-hour concert.

Such length was not necessary, since Verdi’s Triumphal March was written three decades before the other works. And a full symphony by Giuseppe Martucci was long, prosaic, derivative (from Brahms mainly). The conductor could have chosen one movement from Martucci, and played two more works (Busoni? Early Dallapiccola?) for more interest.

But sandwiched in between the Verdi and Respighi’s Fountains of Rome were three unfamiliar works.

First was Malipiero’s mysteriously named Pauses of Silence, composed during the First World War. Best known as the ultimate editor of all Italian music, this short work took a simple cellular theme, and produced a quick set of “mood” variations, ranging from a wild dance, to a horn-trumpet fanfare and a series of two dirges. The duration was perfect, and the emotions were fleeting, But it could work at any orchestral concert.

Pizzetti’s Oedipus Prologues produced near-operatic moods. The second sounded too much like film music, but the first—an effective tragic work with soft drum tremolos , and the third, with a lovely violin solo by Erica Kiesewetter, were both effective.

The ultimate crowd-pleaser, though (outside of the Respighi) was Italia by Alfredo Casella. Later in his life, Casella experimented with bitonality and atonality. But here he vastly improved on Richard Strauss’s Aus Italien. An overlong introduction, complete with church bells, led to a reworking of three popular songs, with Funiculi expanded into a quodlibet with two other songs and a blazing finale.

The American Symphony Orchestra is not the best around, and arresting moments can seem blurred. But Maestro Botstein once again succeeded in searching for neglected music and rescuing it for his enthusiastic audiences.

Harry Rolnick



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