REVIEW: Leon Botstein's The Orchestra Now All Thumbs-Up, in 'Beethoven's Likes' at Carnegie

By Ian Holubiak on Feb 03, 2016 02:28 AM EST

The Orchestra Now (TON) is simple in its message and delivery: bringing orchestral music to new ears. These ears, though, are of a more youthful generation, or at least that was the demographic of Friday night's performance at Carnegie Hall, January 29. Real classical--heavy in its presence, unyielding in its impact--is what provides the foundation for music with substance. Apropos, Leon Botstein led a pitch-perfect program of Cherubini curio and Beethoven warhorse, buttressed by premieres of Ferdinand Ries and one Anton Reicha.

Dubbed the "Beethoven's Likes" concert, the looming hypothesis of the night remained something along the lines of, 'what's to be said about the greatness of Beethoven?' President-cum-maestro Botstein, who isn't just another bald conductor with a clear bat, helped bestow his fount of knowledge onto an audience that only knows him, if at all, from the Colbert Report.

The shortest of the performances opened the night, the overture to Luigi Cherubini's Les deux jounées (Der Wasserträger). In his amiable oratory, Botstein introduced the band, an outfit of Bard College students who are out for their masters. A training orchestra that doesn't sound like, well, a training orchestra, players in the ensemble hail from six different countries: the United States, Korea, China, Japan, Canada and Venezuela.

After a short preface, Botstein delved right in to it. Cherubini, himself, was more than a student of Beethoven; he even played a role in the commission of the magnum Symphony No. 9. Likewise, this orchestra of relatively young players was able to execute Cherubini with all the required fervor.

While TON navigated Cherubini's melismas with ease, it was what followed that really made the first half of the concert both mysterious and unique.

Clearly, Anton Reicha never was and never shall be an archetype, but his reach within the wind literature duly extended upward via Botstein's TON. In the world premiere of the Czech-born, French-naturalized composer's Symphony No. 3, it's easy to hear the influence of Salieri, Reicha's most obvious model. Perhaps its because he refrained from publication that this music was never premiered in the U.S. Regardless, it was TON's mission to do so. Landing well with this particular audience, I'd call it mission accomplished.

And while TON certainly voiced the counterpoint and harmonies accordingly, dipping through the adagio contrasted a bit too much with the final, overstating a point of impact in size and scope from a band that, at least realistically, doesn't have that many varied components.

The greatest part of the evening came post-intermission, when Piers Lane came out for a wondeful, oft-neglected work. The U.K.-born Aussie is a five-time soloist at the BBC Proms in London's Royal Albert Hall and has a repertoire of some 90 works he's performed alongside some of the greatest in the pianistic world.

On paper, yes, a curious booking for the New York premiere of Ferdinand Ries' Piano Concerto No. 8. On stage, though, Lane's selection proved expert curation. A strong solo line such as this (and his) enhances the overall clarity of the concerto rhetoric, and Lane earned extra style points for being able to contrast with Botstein's tutti in color and gestalt.

A fast right hand, sure, Ries' runs were well-rehearsed by Piers. And Botstein's blend of horn and key no doubt ended the movement on a strong, high note. So high, that come the cadenza, Lane received two standing ovations (and I think I heard an "encore" in the mix, as well).

Next, the moment anyone in a seat was waiting for: Herr Beethoven's Fifth. For such a seemingly callow audience, this may have been the only piece they would fully recognize. And that stood for a reason.

"It's the feeling we get from playing music," Mr. Botstein said, addressing his rapt listeners one last time. "That is why we play." An appropriate summation, indeed, of one of the most alarming and commanding works of Beethoven's middle catalog.

Post those first four notes--Botstein sharp in their attack, TON lingering not on the fermatas--this is what the night was all about. The excitement that we feel, collectively, when hearing a motif we all know by heart.

Knowing, too, that in the grand symphonic tradition, be it in Botstein's orchestra or in Carnegie's aisle, there's always something new to learn.

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TagsThe Orchestra Now, Leon Botstein, Beethoven, Symphony No. 5, Anton Reicha, REVIEW

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