In the final concert of its Carnegie Hall season on May 12, The Orchestra Now (TON) performed four seldom-heard works from the late 1930s. These diverse masterpieces were William Grant Still’s Dismal Swamp, Carlos Chávez’s Piano Concerto, Witold Lutoslawski’s “Symphonic Variations,” and Karl Amadeus Hartmann’s Symphony No. 1. A group of 59 young musicians selected from the world’s leading conservatories and hailing from 13 different countries across the globe, TON remained true to its mission: to make orchestral music relevant to 21st-century audiences and share insights about the featured pieces, as they did on Thursday night, through on-stage introductions and demonstrations. Acclaimed conductor, educator, and music historian Leon Botstein founded TON in 2015 as a graduate program at Bard College, where he is also president. Throughout the entire concert, Maestro Botstein conducted with force and grace, always nurturing, responsive, and sensitive to the soloists and the orchestra members.
Pianist Frank Corliss performs William Grant Still’s Dismal Swamp with conductor Leon Botstein and The Orchestra Now at Carnegie Hall on 5-12-22 – Photo by David DeNee
William Grant Still’s 1935 portrait of enslaved people’s flight to freedom, Dismal Swamp—inspired by a poem by his wife, Verna Avery—created a musical atmosphere that evoked being trapped in the swamp of a bleak existence while envisioning an emergence into a future filled with promise and hope. This tone poem for piano and orchestra featured pianist Frank Corliss, director of the Bard College Conservatory of Music, who succeeded in helping convey the gloomy, lumbering tension integrated perfectly into the orchestral strings, brass, and winds’ ominous, misty depiction of the swamp.
Pianist Gilles Vonsattel performs Carlos Chávez’s Piano Concerto with conductor Leon Botstein and The Orchestra Now at Carnegie Hall on 5-12-22 – Photo by David DeNee
Another masterful pianist followed, taking on Carlos Chávez’s demanding and complex Piano Concerto. Swiss soloist and Bard Conservatory faculty member Gilles Vonsattel remained in control of the often-rapid-fire playing required of him, and undaunted by the unpredictability of this Concerto, so whimsical and mind-boggling in its tonality shifts. Vonsattel proved an attentive partner to the duet with harpist Taylor Ann Fleshman. Fleshman’s harp solo in the second movement followed by Vonsattel’s delicacy on the keyboard in unison with the winds provided a graceful, sacred moment of respite in this wild piece that, at times, resembled a mix of Stravinsky or Shostakovich with a Western film soundtrack, punctuated with syncopated Mexican rhythms.
Witold Lutoslawski’s sweeping, cinematic “Symphonic Variations” was both a crowd-pleaser and an enigma. With the distinctions between the variations blurred, the audience was asked to see how many variations they might be able to count. The incredible fluidity between the variations, however, made the count impossible, and all one could do was ride the shifting waves of sound and marvel at the orchestra’s full-force splendor and dynamics brought out by Maestro Botstein on a musical canvas of crescendos and surprising tone colors.
Conductor Leon Botstein and The Orchestra Now perform Witold Lutoslawski’s Symphonic Variations at Carnegie Hall on 5-12-22 – Photo by David DeNee
The program offered a solemn, tear-filled, and relevant ending. Karl Amadeus Hartmann’s First Symphony, Versuch eines Requiems (translated in the program as Essay for a Requiem) is five-movement compilation of poetic settings by Walt Whitman sung by the mezzo-soprano Deborah Nansteel. Considered a “degenerate artist” in Nazi Germany, Hartmann denounces war in his musical bursts of anguish and horror, depicted by abrupt dissonance, drumming, and sequences of massive orchestral power. Deborah Nansteel’s rich mezzo-soprano voice conveyed the sorrow and terror of war in dark vocal hues, unleashing her strong voice only to subdue it in anguish, sculpting the words and coloring them with meaning. Particularly poignant, the fourth movement, Tränen (Tears) set to Whitman’s text about a ghost who by day seems calm and decorous, yet at night unleashes endless tears, made it impossible not to cry. Throughout the entire piece, but especially in this movement—low in register for both singer and strings and accentuated by the winds as long restrained sobs—the relevance to today’s times pierced collective awareness and feeling.
By the time Nansteel sang about the “unloosened ocean of tears” this reviewer was already crying her eyes out. In the context of the current war in Eastern Europe and in conjuring up every loss we have been mourning and every hardship we have been enduring for the past two years, the tears in Nansteel’s soulful, warm voice instantly caused an overpowering visceral reaction. The prayer at the end of the symphony, entitled Request, a type of incantation between speech and singing asking the Earth to receive and cradle the victims, provided a form of musical balsam, yet the evocative force of Hartmann’s work continued to haunt the mind and emotions long after the last note had been played.
Top photo: Mezzo-Soprano Deborah Nansteel performs Karl Amadeus Hartmann’s Symphony No. 1, “Essay for a Requiem” with conductor Leon Botstein and The Orchestra Now at Carnegie Hall on 5-12-22 – Photo by David DeNee