Monday, November 22, 2010

Leon Botstein conducts the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra in a concert of music from Vienna at the turn of the 20th century

The Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra opened its 2010-2011 Great Vocal Series and Four Musical Cities series in the Henry Crown Auditorium, Jerusalem Theatre, November 17th 2010, with a concert of music written in Vienna around the turn of the 20th century. It was directed by the JSO’s conductor laureate Leon Botstein. The concert was dedicated to the memory of violinist Shimon Mishori; Mishori, the JSO’s concertmaster for many years, passed away November 16th.

The concert opened with Anton Webern’s (1883-1945) Passacaglia, opus 1 (1908). Not by any means Webern’s first composition, his Opus 1 was the last and most ambitious work written under the guidance of Arnold Schoenberg. Although rooted in the nominal key of D minor, Webern moves into shifting, vague and sometimes vague tonalities. The work begins with a pizzicato theme on which the variations are based. Botstein directs the orchestra and his listeners through the 20-odd variations, each different in orchestration, temperament and texture, presenting the tense, compelling, late Romantic orchestral sound with the same clarity as the moments in which the orchestra takes on chamber proportions, occasionally reducing to a disquieting, introspective, single, muted melodic line. If Webern’s interest was “to recognize sounds, to experience them sensuously…” Maestro Botstein and the JSO’s lush, fresh and richly-colored reading of the work was true to the composer’s intention.

Some of Gustav Mahler’s (1860-1911) “Kindertotenlieder” (Songs on the Death of Children) were composed in 1901, others in 1904; the order in which the songs were written is not clear. The German poet Friedrich Ruckert (1788-1866) wrote over 400 Kindertotenlieder, of which Mahler chose five for his song cycle, choosing those that focus on the idea of light.

‘Now the sun will rise as brightly
As if the night had brought no cause for grief.
The grief was mine alone,
The sun shines for all alike..’

Ruckert had lost a son. Mahler lost a daughter in 1907, that is, after he had composed the song cycle, but his own childhood was clouded in the tragedy of death, with eight of his siblings having died, including his favorite brother Ernst; Ernst happened to be the name of Ruckert’s son who had died. Israeli-born mezzo-soprano Edna Prochnik, an opera singer who performs in Europe, the USA and Israel, includes the Mahler song cycles in her concert repertoire. Her deep reading into the text made for a compelling performance, one of good taste, to be enhanced by her fine diction. Prochnik’s voice boasts a varied and richly-colored lower range together with a powerful and dramatic higher register. She contends well with the orchestra, phrasing naturally, creating poignant, haunting moments and saving her vocal strength for the more emphatic and tragic climaxes. Above all, Prochnik works the verbal- and musical text together with Botstein, Botstein using his orchestral palette to color and reinforce the gesture of each moment. The storm of the fifth song gives way to that magical appearance of light, as issued in by the glockenspiel, with the childlike naivete of the flute melody, the work finding its tranquility and finality in the D major cadence. It was an impressive and moving performance.

Anton Bruckner’s (1824-1896) symphonies have sometimes been referred to as “cathedrals of sound”, a pertinent remark, considering the fact that the composer was from a pious Catholic family and had served as cathedral organist before leaving Linz for Vienna. In Vienna, his life became a series of controversies and strife, his symphonies, radical in scope, sometimes received with hostility. From 1889 to 1896, Bruckner worked on his 9th Symphony, but died suddenly, leaving an unfinished symphony of three complete movements, with sketches for a finale. As luck would have it, Bruckner’s 9th Symphony was greeted with mostly enthusiastic reviews when premiered posthumously in 1903. It is an elegy, a personal and religious work, a reflection on life and death. Botstein, conducting the symphony (without a baton) brings out its orchestral sonorities, the large, powerful, uncompromising expression of the brass section contrasting with lyrical, thought-provoking moments. Maestro Botstein’s performance of the work is noble and sincere, his transitions are sensitively paced,his mix of orchestral textures never defying clarity.

Well programmed, this was an interesting, inspiring and rewarding evening for those who enjoy good orchestral playing. The Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra pleased the audience with its vitality. The JSO’s program notes are detailed and informative and included excerpts from an article of Botstein’s on Bruckner.

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