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Review: American Symphony Orchestra Brings ‘Sounds of Democracy’ to Carnegie Hall

By Brian Taylor, Contributing Writer, October 13, 2017

During these tumultuous times, it is a comfort to know that the arts are responding with bold examinations of current events. In fact, the classical music scene in New York has some important voices that are presenting programming relevant to our zeitgeist. The American Symphony Orchestra and its probing conductor Leon Botstein presented such a program at Carnegie Hall on October 11 with a program of rarely heard American twentieth-century works relevant to this theme, collectively entitled ‘The Sounds of Democracy.’

Aaron Copland’s Canticle of Freedom, composed in 1955, and sounding very characteristic of the well-meaning fifties, was clearly an artistic reaction to the composer’s experience before the McCarthy committee, pressured to admit to being a Communist sympathizer. The piece for large orchestra and chorus begins with a stately, tense instrumental section depicting a dark, oppressive struggle, until finally the chorus brings relief and openness with their song to freedom, “Freedom is a noble thing!” The orchestra rose confidently to the grandiosity required of this music, with particularly dynamic playing by the busy percussion section. The winds and strings responded to Copland’s snappy rhythms with crackerjack skill, although perhaps some of the more cryptic passages might have benefitted from improved intonation.

Roger Sessions, a composer of Ivy League pedigree who eventually ran the Juilliard School among other institutions, nurtured the mid-century dogma of Schoenberg-inspired abstruse modernism. His Second Symphony, written in 1944-46, is one of America’s most expressive, yet esoteric, artistic responses to the World War II era, and is dedicated to the memory of FDR. Sessions’s compositional voice in this piece is dense, knotty, and doggedly atonal. This is not easy music to appreciate on first listen. Even with some appreciation of twelve-tone technique, the language is too obcure for the ear to follow in a linear way. But the mournful third movement, Adagio tranquillo ed espressivo, with a wonderful English horn solo played by Lillian Copeland, is spellbinding and expressive, and Botstein shaped it beautifully.

The second half of the program was a rare and vital performance of Leonard Bernstein’s Symphony No. 3, “Kaddish,” a deeply personal seven-movement rhetorical work employing narrator, soprano soloist, chorus, children’s chorus, and a large orchestra. Sharing a religiosity with the more upbeat Chichester Psalms and the jazzier and looser Mass, the “Kaddish” is a dark confrontation of faith, and a sweeping Mahler-esque symphonic journey.

As the “speaker,” Thomas Q. Fulton, Jr., impressed with his expressive, vociferous voice and command of language, and brought the outsized gravitas of King Lear. Although the device of this speaker addressing God angrily (“Tin God! Your bargain is tin! / It crumbles in my hand! / And where is faith now – Yours or mine?”) seems overwrought, the piece transcends this quirk in its rewarding musical heights.

In the exquisite fourth movement, Kaddish 2, our focus moved to the long lined soprano solo. Sung in Hebrew with richness and warmth by Pamela Armstrong, in dialogue with the Manhattan Girls Chorus, the music builds to a delightful passage filled with athletic rhythms and leaping intervals. The Scherzo, although frustratingly dominated by the histrionic speaking part, was thrilling in the way the varied textures of Bernstein’s colorful orchestration reached emotional peaks as the movement builds and expands, eventually segueing into the Kaddish 3 and the return of the children’s chorus. Throughout, Bernstein’s yearning score finds him grappling with the assertion of the individual against the universe.

It is an admirable endeavor to revisit these works, air them out, and examine our American musical legacy. While Sessions’s arid symphony might have staled over the years, the music of Copland and Bernstein is enduring in its appeal and never more pertinent, as proven by this moving and ambitious performance.


American Symphony Orchestra in concert at Carnegie Hall on October 11, 2017. Conducted by Leon Botstein;  Pamela Armstrong, soprano; Thomas Q. Fulton, Jr., speaker; Bard Festival Chorale, James Bagwell, director; Manhattan Girls Chorus, Michelle Oesterle, director.

COPLAND Canticle of Freedom
SESSIONS Symphony No. 2
BERNSTEIN Symphony No. 3, “Kaddish”


Cover: (l. to r.) Pamela Armstrong, soprano, conductor Leon Botstein and Thomas Q. Fulton, Jr., speaker, in concert with the American Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall; photo: Matt Dine.


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