March 10, 2018
Music made in America figured prominently on concerts this week by the American Brass Quintet (March 4) and the San Antonio Symphony (March 9).
The capstone of the symphony concert, led by music director Sebastian Lang-Lessing, was an extraordinary performance of Antonin Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9, “From the New World,” written in 1893 during the Bohemian composer’s sojourn in New York. The centerpiece, featuring principal cellist Kenneth Freudigman, was Ernest Bloch’s Schelomo: Rhapsodie hébraique for cello and orchestra, composed just before Bloch moved from his native Switzerland to the United States in 1916. Both works were given their world premieres by the New York Philharmonic in Carnegie Hall. Another composer closely associated with that orchestra was the American conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein, whose Three Dance Episodes from the Broadway musical On the Town
opened the concert.
Schelomo assigns the cello soloist a gusher of direct, earnest melody – sometimes introspective, sometimes declamatory – which Mr. Freudigman executed with his customary intensity and gorgeously limpid tone.
Maybe more gorgeously limpid than customary: Placed at downstage center and facing the audience, his cello coupled so beautifully and intimately with the Tobin Center’s H-E-B Performance Hall’s superb acoustics that this performance was like hearing him for the first time. From my seat in balcony of this 1700-seat hall, Freudigman’s instrument projected sound with more immediacy and vividness than I can recall from any of the smaller chamber music venues he’s played in.
Some of the credit probably goes to a new podium custom-made to plans Freudigman saw years ago when he was a student at the Eastman School of Music. He tracked them down in preparation for this concert and asked Hill Country craftsman Frank Strazza to build the platform. In an interview published Friday in the emailed newsletter of the Musicians of the San Antonio Symphony, Freudigman explained: “The unique thing about this particular podium is that it is not just to get the cello off the floor, but it also has in internal soundboard which is connected to the top by a soundpost (where I put my endpin), making the entire podium a resonating chamber.”
The problem with Schelomo is that Bloch’s writing for the orchestra is entirely too busy and densely textured, weighing the piece down with late-Romantic gloop mixed with modernist brush strokes. Mr. Lang-Lessing and the orchestra gave it their all, nonetheless.
Mr. Freudigman’s solo encore was the Sarabande from Bach’s Suite No. 3 in G, played with great sensitivity.
Dvořák’s “New World” Symphony was on the program of Mr. Lang-Lessing’s first subscription concert as music director, in January of 2011. That concert was in the Majestic Theater, whose acoustics were ungenerous and harsh. Hearing the same piece in the Tobin Center, with its rich resonance, warmth, clarity and timbral fidelity, was a revelation. Many passages came across with a definition that I’d never heard before – so much so that a listener might well gain new respect for Dvořák’s skills in orchestration and counterpoint. As before, Mr. Lang-Lessing gave sumptuous shape to phrasing and tempi, and he brought crackling drama to the outer allegros. Although he took the adagio introduction to the first movement more slowly than the norm, tempos on the whole were brisk – breathtakingly so in a triplets passage in the finale.
English horn Jennifer Berg did lovely work in the second movement’s “Going Home” theme, and the strings complemented her with silken playing. The entire brass contingent – and especially the horns – played magnificently in both allegros. (We will drop a discreet veil over their messy attack at the start of the Largo.)
Mr. Lang-Lessing hails from Germany, of course, but his account of Bernstein’s score was bursting with pure Bronx moxie. His dance-like, whole-body conducting in the exuberant outer movements elicited from the orchestra a rhythmic pungency that was as streetwise and American as a hot dog with yellow mustard. Principal trumpet John Carroll earned plaudits with his soulful solo in the bluesy middle movement and his raucous bump-and-grind style in the finale.
Much of the American Brass Quintet’s concert, sponsored by the San Antonio ChamberMusic Society in Temple Beth-El, was devoted to elegant, stylish accounts of European music from the 16th to the 19th century. But there were three recent American works – two commissioned by the quintet, one commissioned by the presenter in honor of San Antonio’s tricentennial and given its world premiere at this concert..
James Scott Balentine, emeritus professor of music at UTSA, composed the Tricentennial work, the river remembers, as a musical response to a charming poem by Carmen Tafolla. The three short movements – fast, slow, fast – engage the listener with rich jazz harmonies and sometimes a gentle wit similar to Tafolla’s. The melodic line in the finale meanders almost as crazily as the San Antonio River itself. The piece was over too soon – but that’s better than the alternative.
The ABQ gave the premiere of Philip Lasser’s Common Heroes, Uncommon Land last fall at the Juilliard School in New York. The piece incorporates spoken excerpts from poetry by Langston Hughes. The music is something of a throwback to the mid-20th century American modernist mainstream, but it also draws from the European Renaissance and from jazz. Lasser has a nice way of reflecting the feeling of the text without resorting to literal imagism – for example, the plodding motion and joylessness of the music for Hughes’ “Dreams”:
Hold fast to dreams For if dreams die Life is a broken-winged bird That cannot fly.
Hold fast to dreams For when dreams go Life is a barren field Frozen with snow.
Eric Ewazen’s Frost Fire, dating from 1990, wears its Americanism in the jutting, eccentric rhythms of the quick first and third movements and the soft rocking motion of the middle movement.
Lots of music from the new world
American Brass Quintet members Kevin Cobb and Louis Hanzlik (trumpets), Michael Powell (trombone), Eric Reed (horn) and John D. Rojak (bass trombone). Below: Cellist Kenneth Freudigman.