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The Orchestra Now

Concert Review: The Orchestra Now – ‘Exodus: Jewish Composers in Exile’

The Orchestra Now (TON) is a graduate-level training orchestra that at its best can sound almost indistinguishable from a top-level professional one. Music Director Leon Botstein creates programs that are musically and historically interesting for audiences, as well as challenging for the musicians.

Exodus: Jewish Composers in Exile was just such a program. It consisted of music from the 1940s by four composers who had fled their European homelands to escape the rise of Nazi Germany. Out of the trauma of uprooting, they created some fine music that deserves to be heard.

Alexandre Tansman: Exile and Patriotism

Into his 1940 Polish Rhapsody Alexandre Tansman (1897–1986) incorporated strains of his homeland’s national anthem and rhythms of its dances, including the mazurka and polonaise so familiar to Chopin fans. Tansman remained devoted to Poland even as he resettled in France in the 1930s. Considered a pioneer of neoclassicism, he embittered this piece with warpings and dissonances that reflect Europe’s pain, even throwing in a bit of “God Save the Queen.”

Alexandre Tansman
Alexandre Tansman

TON’s solid realization was worthy of the composer’s inspired orchestration. (Per Wikipedia’s count, the prolific Tansman wrote nine symphonies, 10 ballets and seven operas, as well as a great deal of chamber music, over his long career.) I found the Polish Rhapsody quite stirring.

Baritone Noam Heinz joined the orchestra for Josef Tal’s biblically-inspired suite Exodus. Written just after the war, this programmatic music dramatizes Hebrew passages from the book of Exodus concerning the Israelites’ escape from bondage in Egypt. It’s replete with fanfares, martial drums, crashing waves, and racing rhythms, with a captivating sequence of scratched cello strings. Despite an energized performance, I found the music cinematic and picturesque but not terribly inspiring – though Heinz’s voice rang with a golden shine.

Jews escaped the rise of Nazism to many parts of the world. Czech-Jewish composer Walter Kaufmann spent a stretch of his life in India, whose native music he came to love and incorporate into his work. His 1943 Indian Symphony is an interesting, intense fusion of neoclassicism and Indian traditional music, a combination I don’t think I’d ever heard before. Amid quick whirls of melody and a dose of orchestral bombast, steady themes persisted over a wide variety of colors and beats. A big and brassy finale that struck me as Gershwinesque drew from the orchestra a powerful, precision performance of complex rhythms.

Marcel Rubin: Judgment Day

The longest and most impactful piece was Viennese composer Marcel Rubin’s Symphony No. 4, “Dies irae,” composed in Mexico in 1943–45 and revised decades later. Expressed first by a solo viola, then by the orchestra in the tempo of a dirge, the main theme of the first movement ends with a discordant note that seems to signal the pain and disruption of war. A pastoral interlude leads to a striking unison section full of animated angst. Then an insistent steady rhythm builds to a series of shrieks followed by a collapse into a kind of somber minuet. Dissonant brass and plaintive reeds, along with the persistent viola, seem to depict the forlorn, or the dead.

Marcel Rubin
Marcel Rubin

The horrors of war jump to the forefront in the second movement. An intricate fanfare leads into the “Dies irae” (judgment day) theme, shared over the course of the piece by various sections of the orchestra, pained and musically invigorating. Rubin then fractures the theme into fascinating variations that spin the head. When the pastoral final movement arrives it’s only a partial relief, with earlier themes recurring as if to remind us we’re not off the hook. After much music defined mostly by melody and rhythmic sequences, here interesting harmonies arise.

The music ends with harps, bells, and flute suturing a wound that still quietly nags. This made a fitting conclusion to a program of music that arose from a time of war and persecution – and was presented now, by pure chance, at another such time.

The Orchestra Now next performs at Symphony Space on November 19, 2023 with music of Schumann and Strauss. Details and tickets for this and further upcoming concerts, some of them free, are available online.

About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is Publisher and Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Music, where he covers classical music (old and new) and other genres, and Culture, where he reviews NYC theater. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting at http://www.orenhope.com/ you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. Jon also writes the blog Park Odyssey at http://parkodyssey.blogspot.com/ where he is on a mission to visit every park in New York City. He has also been a part-time working musician, including as lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado.

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