On December 16, at New York’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine, American Symphony Orchestra (ASO) launched its 60th season in a stirring return to the stage with a free concert entitled Mahler in New York. Under the baton of ASO’s Music Director, Leon Botstein, the orchestra presented three composers that Gustav Mahler had championed during his time in New York as well as the Adagio of Mahler’s last, unfinished composition, Symphony No. 10.
The three composers were Americans George Whitefield Chadwick and Henry Hadley, both born in Massachusetts, and the Amsterdam-native Alphons Diepenbrock. Their works would unjustly fall into obscurity were it not for advocates of rarely heard music like Maestro Botstein. The pieces performed, Melpomene Overture (Chadwick), The Culprit Fay (Hadley), and Hymne an die Nacht, No.2 (Diepenbrock) proved to be a treasure trove of musical delights. Each offered passages that sparkled with innovation, sometimes echoing iconic composers of the canon. A very recognizable such echo invoked the beginning of Wagner’s Prelude and the famous “Tristan chord” from his opera Tristan und Isolde in Chadwick’s Melpomene Overture.
Mezzo Soprano Taylor Raven with the American Symphony Orchestra
So, why would Chadwick, a major representative of the Second New England School of American composers of the late 19th century, be so obvious in borrowing from one of the most famous musical geniuses of all time? Why would he risk criticism for Wagner-imitation, which he did encounter, especially in Germany? This was no mere imitation; the borrowing seemed on purpose. It may have been a bow of musical acknowledgement to the legendary composer whose influence he felt, after which Chadwick followed his own course of musical development of various themes, while periodically “winking” musically at Wagner throughout his overture. To me, Chadwick’s music revealed a mélange of influences: at times it had Tchaikovsky-sounding touches of fatal melancholy, other times the music evoked Brahms. Chadwick had studied in Germany like other American-born composers of his generation. Still, despite the temptation to situate his music into the European canon and discover in it borrowed elements from the great master composers, one can discern an individual, fresh, imaginative voice behind the European influences. And that sense of novelty within sweeping Romanticism came across through the refined attention to thematic detail that Maestro Botstein drew out of the orchestra
Henry Kimball Hadley studied composition with Chadwick, and moved to Vienna to complete his studies, longing to establish himself as a conductor in Europe. But he returned to the United States, and later became the first American-born associate conductor of The New York Philharmonic. Aside from his operas, symphonies, chamber works, oratorios, art songs, and other orchestral works, he left us the enduring legacy of Tanglewood—the music festival initially known as the Berkshire Symphonic Music Festival that he founded with arts patron and philanthropist, Gertrude Robinson Smith. During his lifetime, Hadley’s music was published and performed extensively. His orchestral work, The Culprit Fay, inspired by American poet Joseph Rodman Drake’s narrative poem, evokes the beginning of Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream’s overture in the early gossamer-like effects of the strings, conjuring up a fairy land. The first violinist and the orchestra conveyed the dreamlike allure of the piece with grace and playfulness. Maestro Botstein illuminated the finer textural details while deftly leading the orchestra through several shifts in tempo and ambiance. Sometimes I wished we were listening to this piece in a concert hall, as the Cathedral’s acoustics overpowered some of delicate layers of textural finesse and detail. This was an exquisitely conducted and performed work, and one that, like Chadwick’s Melpomene Overture, should have already found its way into the standard repertoire of international orchestras.
In his pre-concert talk and Q & A session, Maestro Botstein said: “History is not an objective judge,” and there will always be those who “control tastes and entrances into visibility.” Then, what were these 19th-century American composers to do? They were caught in an impossible situation. On one hand, they were expected to study in Europe, and conservative American audiences demanded European-sounding classical music from them. On the other hand, American critics accused them of being imitators because they did not infuse their music with a distinctive American voice. Yet, if they made any attempts to do so, they were criticized in Europe—and a mark of success was that their music be played and accepted throughout Europe. Nonetheless, many have said that Chadwick especially did develop a unique voice, a European-educated American voice.
As a European composer, Diepenbrock, did not feel this pressure of being trapped between the new and the old worlds. He was not a musician by training; he studied classics at the University of Amsterdam, earning his doctorate with a dissertation on the life of Seneca. A self-taught composer, he paid particular attention to the words of his numerous vocal works. He only chose high-quality texts from poets such as Goethe, Novalis, and Verlaine, among others. It is Novalis’s poem we hear in his Hymne and die Nacht, No. 2. Diepenbrock’s music is reminiscent of Wagner as well as Debussy, although, at times, one could hear a bit of a Dvorak-like mysterious succession of harmonic moods. Mezzo-soprano Taylor Raven offered an array of appealing vocal colors that carried a similar mystery within them. Her voice blossomed with ease in an amplitude of warm, full sound, revealing impressive flexibility and command of dynamics; it then retreated into the lower, darkened tones that indeed kept “infinite secrets” as the poem says at the end.
The evening’s finale, the Adagio from Mahler’s Symphony No. 10 was thrilling and riveting. Maestro Botstein and the ASO transported the audience to the heights of the Cathedral and beyond in a sensitive, beautifully paced, and impassioned interpretation, conveying anguish, bright outbursts of hope, and dissonant-sounding torment while maintaining an irresistible momentum within the slow tempo and even in the seemingly suspended moments of interweaving themes. And during the ending, when the violins ascended to their loftiest heights, there was an eerie silence from the audience as though everyone was holding their breath.
This was a rousing, inspiring, and meaningful season opener. I cannot forget Maestro Botstein’s additional musings during his talk; he told us first of all: “Don’t ask what a masterpiece is” and second: “Writing music is not an Olympic sport.” How does one judge who is the better composer, and what does “better” even mean? How many composers, how many artists and writers, are out there whose works could touch the public in profound ways but who are never given access to the “entrances into visibility?” This remains a timeless, answerless question. Which is why offering the music of largely neglected American composers the occasion to resound in all of its complexity, novelty, and beauty, to delight, and to surprise, means a great deal. Performing these works so superbly did these composers some justice. I, for one, had never heard any works by Chadwick or Hadley, and since this concert, I have been scouring YouTube for more of their music as well as for Diepenbrock’s works. As for Mahler, he continues to remain one of my favorite geniuses. Learn more about American Symphony Orchestra and its upcoming schedule.
Featured photo: American Symphony Orchestra with Maestro Leon Botstein opening their 60th season at St. John the Divine on December 16, 2021.
All photos: Matt Dine