Leon Botstein Redefines ‘New’; Benjamin Britten Turns Japanese

In an age in which a listener can access a thousand years of music with the click of a mouse, and in which living classical composers, no matter how worthy, are unlikely to regain a place at the top of the cultural food chain, just what is “new music” anyway? Leon Botstein, the music director of the American Symphony Orchestra (and the president of Bard College)—who hardly ever performs the music of our own time, but whose concerts routinely expose audiences to hundreds of obscure, would-be masterworks from ages past—just might be one of the most important “new music” conductors around. He got his latest chance to prove it on Sunday, April 15, at Avery Fisher Hall, when he conducted Franz Schreker’s 1910 opera Der Ferne Klang (The Distant Sound) with the A.S.O., the Concert Chorale of New York and a raft of soloists.

This performance marked the first time that any opera by Schreker (1878-1934) has been performed in the Western Hemisphere. Premiering in 1912, Der Ferne Klang was the first of a series of operas that made Schreker—who, like Wagner, wrote his own librettos—one of the most lionized musical figures in both fin-de-siècle Vienna and Weimar Germany. (The greatest of them, Die Gezeichneten, or The Branded, was recently given a stunning production by the Salzburg Festival, available on DVD.) But by the late 1920’s, Schreker’s luxuriant music was going out of style, and by the early 30’s, the encroaching menace of the Nazi regime drove the half-Jewish composer from his teaching posts and, in 1933, to a stroke that would lead to his death.

Der Ferne Klang reveals all of Schreker’s mighty achievements and tragic shortcomings. Fritz, a young composer, must leave his fiancée, Grete, to pursue “the distant sound” he perceives at the edge of his consciousness, and thus to greatness as an artist. Wagered away by her dissolute father to a man she cannot love, Grete escapes her family only to lose her soul as a high-class prostitute. Much later, they are reconciled, but the brokenhearted Fritz, learning too late not to value Art over Life, dies in her arms.

None other than Alban Berg made the vocal score for the opera, and he learned much from it: the naturalistic, demimonde atmosphere and the quasi-cinematic use of structural jump-cutting and collage all helped to make Wozzeck and Lulu what they magnificently are. But whereas Berg’s title characters are unforgettable creations, Schreker’s Fritz and Grete are stand-ins, however sophisticated, for the Tortured Artist and the Hooker With a Heart of Gold. Schreker’s orchestration, in which the influences of Wagner, Puccini and Dukas are woven into a timbral skein of amazing clarity and richness, is sheer genius, but only once—when the “distant sound” itself appears, in the form of a celesta—does it carry with it any memorable music.

Was it worth hearing? Of course, and the New York music community owes Leon Botstein a debt of gratitude. But with the Botstein advocacy—that expensive, poisoned chalice—comes the Botstein performance, which seems more like the product of an enthusiast than a musician. Experts tell us that one of New York’s aged water tunnels is kept from collapsing only by the speed and tonnage of the millions of gallons of water running through it. That’s what Mr. Botstein’s conducting is like: Tempo changes, of which there are dozens in this densely detailed work, are flattened out or ignored, so that the orchestra can just keep moving and hold together. And while any concert performance of a post-Wagnerian opera—with the vocal soloists in front of a large orchestra—is going to have balance problems, no true professional would have allowed the singers’ voices to be completely wiped out, as they were in the plangent final scene.

The A.S.O. and the Chorale triumphantly soldiered through, as they have so many times before. Robert Künzli and Yamina Maamar, able and experienced singers from the German opera-house system, were a convincing Fritz and Grete; among the many supporting players, Marc Embree and Ryan MacPherson, as Dr. Vigelius and the Chevalier, made especially strong impressions.

ON THE PREVIOUS THURSDAY NIGHT, I headed over to the Japan Society’s building on Dag Hammarskjöld Plaza. The peace-loving Benjamin Britten may have admired the United Nations, but he was a fatalist at heart, and
Curlew River, a quasi-operatic “church parable” from 1964 which the society presented in a three-night run, has that same combination of darkness and decorum that you’ll find in Billy Budd or Peter Grimes.

The Japan Society, as part of its centennial, is examining the evolution of traditional Noh theater, and Curlew River, a Christianized transformation of the great Noh play Sumidagawa, suits such an effort ideally. The Madwoman, shunned by those around her, crosses the Curlew River by ferry to look for her missing son. Once there, she learns of her son’s enslavement and death; praying at his grave, she hears the voice of the boy’s ghost and is cured of her madness. The story engaged Britten on a number of levels: The terrible fate of the boy aroused his obsession with the destruction of innocents, while the spare, late-Stravinsky-style scoring let him show the increasingly influential modernist bloc that he was no longer one to wallow in late-Romantic sonic opulence.

Yoshi Oida’s stark production, from Normandy’s Opera de Rouen, made effective use of the Japan Society’s low, rectangular theater; Tomio Mohri’s costumes gave Britten’s medieval England the aura of a Buddhist monastery. I might wish that the small chorus had been able to clearly pronounce mor
e of the English language that Britten held so dear, and that David Stern’s rather driven conducting had brought out more of the inherent lyricism of the score. But it was wonderful to hear such a rare work so finely done. The tenor Michael Bennett offered an agile and sensitive performance as the Madwoman; the baritones Reuben Willcox and Jonathan May were excellent as the Ferryman and the Traveler.

Russell Platt is a composer and a music editor at The New Yorker. Leon Botstein Redefines ‘New’; Benjamin Britten Turns Japanese