Since becoming music director of the American Symphony Orchestra in 1996, Leon Botstein has shown impressive creativity in fashioning interesting programs, usually focusing on a single subject, consisting of seldom-performed works that deserve a hearing. This program is an excellent example. In “A Walt Whitman Sampler” (possibly a pun on the famous box of chocolate delights), Botstein gathered together four works based upon and inspired by Whitman’s poetry, ranging across a panoply of music exploring various aspects of the human spirit.
Trommelschläge (Drum Taps) by Swiss composer Othmar Schoeck is a five-minute work for chorus and orchestra written just after the First World War began (1915). Here Schoeck vents his wrath at the brutality and devastation of war echoing the expressions of outrage he found in Whitman’s Civil War poem Beat! Beat! Drums!. Trommelschläge did not go down well with the singers of Lehrergesangverein, a choral ensemble based in Zürich of which Schoeck was the director. Members of the choir thought the music too modern. Yet at its premiere Trommelschläge was highly praised. It opens with a funeral march accented by strong thrusting chords laden with dour brass that accompany the chorus in a harsh, sometimes brutal indictment of the demoralizing effects of war. The Bard Festival Chorale, though occasionally lacking textural clarity, resonance and a firm control of pitch, sang with ardor.
Next on the program was an offering by Kurt Weill, his early orchestral and chamber music had expressionistic taint derived from post-Straussian characteristics. But after emigrating to the US in 1933, fleeing the Nazi advance, Weill turned his attention to popular songs, the most famous of which is undoubtedly ‘Mack the Knife’ or September Song. Four Walt Whitman Songs was written between 1942 and 1947, in reaction to the 1941 Pearl Harbor attack. Weill also turned to Whitman’s Civil War poems to express his outrage at Japan’s dastardly deeds. In the second, Weill lends the words a somewhat Mahlerian quality. ‘Dirge for Two Veterans’, the last of Whitman’s Civil War poems that Weill used, has the character of a deeply expressive blues number, and the composer added a fourth song in 1947 placing it third. Edward Nelson is an able young singer whose limitation in vocal power, timbral variety and expressivity did not seriously detract from the light, lyrical quality well-suited to these settings.
Franz Schreker’s music rarely appears in concert programs today. He composed mostly for the stage, and in his time he was the only contemporary composer to have more of his operas performed during his lifetime than Richard Strauss. Schreker’s musical style intermingles Romanticism, Impressionism and Expressionism with progressive experiments in timbre and tonality as well as a penchant for narrative. He reached his peak during the early years of the Weimar Republic, but a few operatic failures and the spread of anti-Semitism that played a significant part in the success of National Socialism in Germany during the 1930s contributed to Schreker’s decline; he died in 1934.
In 1923 Schreker composed Vom ewigen Leben, two coalescing settings, which adopt passages from Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Schreker’s music applies proto-atonal harmonies and iridescent colors to generate a richly voluptuous character. Angel Blue is a real find. Her creamy yet resilient voice, capable of filling the hall with resounding fortes and emitting stunning tones at mezza voce, had impressive breadth, secure intonation, warmth of expression and purity of tone. Her singing here, and in Sea Symphony, were the concert’s highlights.
Ralph Vaughan Williams’s A Sea Symphony, for soprano, baritone, chorus and orchestra, first-performed in 1910 and also setting passages from Leaves of Grass, is an impressive debut Symphony, one of the most successful attempts at a musical setting of Whitman’s poetry, and with such natural aesthetic communion: powerful and moving.
What was missing in this performance, however, was the spark that should ignite this glorious work. Botstein led a rather perfunctory reading, more studious than insightful, essentially ‘by the book’ rather than attempting to elicit the music’s ethereal mystery, dramatic power and grandiloquent transcendence.
After a relatively tame opening fanfare, the first movement, “A Song for all Seas, all Ships”, rarely rose to the grandeur evoked in the music, sounding routine and underplayed. Frequently, Botstein settled in to beating time rather than making an effort to generate any sense of character, in what was mostly a stiff, moderate approach. Nelson’s voice was simply too light and his expressivity too ineffectual to evoke either the mysterium which opens the second movement, “On the Beach at Night, Alone”, or to project the magisterial Elgarian character of its middle section, and Botstein’s ineffectual treatment of the strings’ soft, shimmering figuration that should sound like waves gently floating onto the shore failed to set the proper mood.
The rousing Scherzo (“The Waves”), while energetic became stiff rather than naturally free and rhythmically billowing. Most disappointing was “The Explorers”, the extended Finale, in which Whitman expresses his fervent longing to explore uncharted oceans. Here the first climax should resound with resplendent power; but instead it was withdrawn to make an impact. After thoughts of “Time and Space and Death” recall the shadowy opening of the second movement, the music suddenly bestirs itself from its dreamlike state and takes up the quest to head for “the deep waters”. At its pinnacle, the opening fanfare returns in double augmentation but this important passage was taken so slowly that the reference was virtually unrecognizable. During the closing measures Botstein generated no sense of longing for the infinite.
Although Botstein as a scholar deserves our respect and his willingness to program rare works our gratitude, it is a pity that too often – as in the VW – he seems incapable of delivering more than a strict, characterless reading of a piece.