At orchestral concerts, it’s unusual for conductors to make an appearance before the players have even had a chance to tune their instruments. But at Carnegie Hall on Thursday, Leon Botstein took a moment to thank the audience.
“Practically no one knows these pieces,” he said — referring to the program of 1930s rarities performed that evening by The Orchestra Now, his ensemble of conservatory all-stars — “and the fact that anybody came out on a nice May day is a miracle.”
A miracle, yes, but a modest one.
That night, the New York Philharmonic had “limited availability” for its concert of extremely standard fare — Mozart’s “Turkish” violin concerto, Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony. And, across the street from Carnegie’s stage door, the line for a starry, sold-out run of “Into the Woods” snaked hundreds of feet from the entrance to New York City Center.
At Carnegie, though, there was a good deal of red throughout the cream-and-gold auditorium: patches and entire rows of empty seats. Botstein has made a career of unearthing the ignored treasures of classical music — a noble, essential effort. But Thursday’s concert was a dispiriting reminder of how difficult that work really is; programming gets you only so far in a culture where Mozart and Beethoven, in any weather, continue to have the upper hand.
Of course not everything Botstein selects can be on par with familiar classics. Some are more curiosity than masterpiece, but regardless, he and The Orchestra Now give them high-level readings — as good an argument for them as you can imagine. And on Thursday, he presented four works that are not likely to become repertory staples any time soon, but that are nevertheless worthy of performance.
All were written in the second half of the 1930s, a period that gave us music as varied as Berg’s Violin Concerto and “Lulu,” Barber’s Adagio for Strings, Varèse’s “Density 21.5” and Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf.” Botstein’s programming was similarly wide-ranging, with the first half sampling composers of the Americas — William Grant Still and Carlos Chávez — and the second shifting to Europe, with Witold Lutoslawski and Karl Amadeus Hartmann.
Still was prolific but remains best known for his “Afro-American Symphony,” from 1931. Here he was represented by the later, smaller “Dismal Swamp,” a tone poem for piano and orchestra based on text by Verna Arvey (his wife and collaborator, including on the opera “Highway 1, USA”). A portrait of an escape from slavery to freedom, it is atmospheric yet taut; at the start, both static and dramatic.
Frank Corliss, as the soloist, was skillfully cautious, evoking the scene’s tension with quiet, trudging phrases, at one point amid an eerie fog of harmonics in the surrounding strings. Anachronistic blues passages — in wind solos and muted brass — felt like a glimpse of a future that seemed within reach by the ending, a lush climax that finds beauty, and a kind of joyous promise, in an otherwise dreary landscape.
The revelation of the night may have been Chávez’s Piano Concerto, a three-movement work that functions more like one in two parts: a long first section of mercurial episodes, and another that grows from virtually nothing to a finale of brassy, enormous sound. Excitingly unpredictable — in its development, but also in its rhythms and sonorities — it provided a restless workout for the soloist, Gilles Vonsattel, who was coolly capable throughout, including as a sensitive partner during a long duet with the harpist Taylor Ann Fleshman in the second movement.
After intermission came Lutoslawski’s early “Symphonic Variations,” which are set off by a brief, simple theme stated by a flute over pizzicato strings. Between dizzying runs in the winds, and intrusive dark textures in the cellos and basses, it can be difficult to tell where one variation ends and another begins — so difficult, there isn’t consensus on how many there are. Easier to track, and more enjoyable to take in, is the short work’s journey from Neo-Classical austerity to unruly grandeur.
The joy, though, didn’t last for long. To close the program, Botstein offered Hartmann’s First Symphony, “Versuch eines Requiems” (translated in the program as “Essay for a Requiem,” though more powerful might be something like “Attempt at a Requiem”). A five-movement collection of Walt Whitman settings — sung by the mezzo-soprano Deborah Nansteel between performances in “Lucia di Lammermoor” at the Metropolitan Opera — it is a pained declaration of war whose premiere in 1948 was long delayed by Hartmann’s status as a degenerate artist in Nazi Germany.
Beginning with martial percussion and dissonance, the symphony’s baseline is horror. Working from a low tessitura, Nansteel was often a rich-bodied but chilling presence, hardly melodic and, by the finale, delivering Whitman’s “Pensive on Her Dead Gazing” with heightened, ghostly speech. That movement ends with a crescendo conjuring gunfire but stops abruptly, leaving behind a suspended chord like tinnitus.
Conceived on the cusp of one oppressive regime invading its neighbor, and played now as a similar act of war unfolds, Hartmann’s symphony is a cry against conflict, a warning from the past — but, on Thursday, one that could reach only the few who were there to hear it.
The Orchestra Now
Performed on Thursday at Carnegie Hall, Manhattan.