Botstein, Orchestra Now Frame Stravinsky Like Picasso Cubist Painting

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Leon Botstein conducting The Orchestra Now during a previous concert in the ‘Sight and Sound’ series at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. (Photo by David Denee)

NEW YORK — In an era of round-the-clock news and niche television, YouTube, podcasts, and TED Talks, who outside of academia goes to lectures anymore? Plenty of people, it turns out. Even if they no longer fill large halls as a popular form of “edutainment,” live illustrated presentations thrive in learned societies, museums, performing organizations, and institutes of all kinds.

One fruitful collaboration between two such entities is “Sight and Sound,” a series presented at the Metropolitan Museum of Art by Leon Botstein and The Orchestra Now (TŌN), whose members are graduate students in the pre-professional level training program at Bard College. A short musical performance is preceded by a one-hour presentation relating artworks from the Met collection to the selected repertoire. The Feb. 20 program, “Stravinsky, Picasso, and Cubism,” examined the composer’s Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments (1923-24, rev. 1950) in the context of the artistic ferment of Paris in the 1920s.

Members of The Orchestra Now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Photo by Susan Brodie)

Botstein would seem to be the ideal cultural interpreter: Trained as a musicologist, he’s been an educator and scholar for nearly 50 years and served as president of Bard College since 1975. He returned his career focus to music in 1981, a decade later becoming music director of the American Symphony Orchestra, a post he holds to this day. Under his leadership, Bard College expanded from its liberal arts focus to include a music conservatory, and in 2015 he founded The Orchestra Now, a training ensemble for emerging professional instrumentalists.

TŌN performs regularly in major concert venues and in community settings, led by Botstein and guest conductors. Members master the disciplines involved in regular ensemble playing, and a three-year degree program offers more in-depth work in programming and other skills. Beyond simply learning and playing music, multi-disciplinary programs like “Sight and Sound” offer broad enrichment opportunities to young players who have probably spent much of their youth in the practice room.

Natty in a bowtie that matched the royal blue shirts or neckties worn by the orchestra members, Botstein spoke without notes, illustrating his talk with slides of paintings from the Met collection. He gave a general introduction about some of the aesthetic currents at play in 1920s Paris, first reminding listeners of the general trauma brought on by the Great War and the flu pandemic. Cultural currents swirled through Paris: Artists were fascinated with Japan, which had only opened to the west 50 years earlier, and their numbers were increased by an influx of Russian emigrés, including Stravinsky.

Picasso’s 1911 ‘Still Life with a Bottle of Rum’ was part of the TŌN program.

Some artists worked in more than one discipline, and artists, choreographers, and composers collaborated on spectacles like operas and ballets. In painting, Picasso and his circle experimented with the breakdown of visual representation, rejecting the “romantic realism” of a literal image in favor of assembling visual elements meant to evoke an aesthetic response. A few years later, Stravinsky moved on from his Russian folklore-inspired works like The Rite of Spring and Petrouchka to a Neoclassical period, in which he deconstructed historic forms in a process similar to Cubism.

This sketchy summary gives a sense of a few intellectual threads that Botstein plucked from a dense fabric of social history; his principal aim was to illuminate the concerto. The musicologist didn’t really cast much light on the paintings in his slide show, all from the Met collection, but he was able to suggest how similar aesthetic processes were at work in, say, Picasso’s 1911 Cubist Still Life with a Bottle of Rum and the Stravinsky concerto.

The painting layers plastic elements: swoops, dabs, and curls of paint in a muted color palette, black line drawing outlining planar shapes, letters suggesting a newspaper typeface. In a similar fashion in the concerto, Stravinsky writes a melodic line for the piano and layers it with contrapuntal lines in the orchestra, interlocking but independent. I wasn’t entirely persuaded by the analysis of the painting, but it was helpful to hear how the orchestral parts fit together, and it was thrilling to have just seen the painting itself hanging in the modern galleries.

The concerto performance was sturdy and energetic. The horn section hadn’t quite warmed up to conquer the treacherous opening Largo, but the ensemble dug into the Allegro that followed with zest. Dynamics were achieved primarily by adding and subtracting instruments rather than by subtle phrasing, but Blair McMillen gave a lean and nuanced account of the solo piano part, by turns jazzy, lyrical, and driven. If Stravinsky’s formal models for the concerto derived from the Baroque, one could also hear in turn hints of Beethoven, Chopin, Joplin, and even Ravel in MacMillen’s playing. The cheeky exuberance of 1920s Paris didn’t quite come across, but the wind playing was admirable (except for a handful of bass players, the string section stayed home).

Pianist Blair McMillen (Photo by Daniel d’Ottavio)

The post-performance Q&A session yielded some unexpected insights, and revealed McMillen as a thoughtful and articulate artistic partner. A veteran of the New York City new-music scene as well as a long-time Bard faculty member, the pianist shared lucid insights into the construction of the music and approaches to learning it. 

A vivid example was the question from a New York City Ballet dancer, who, having struggled with learning Stravinsky’s intricate rhythms in choreography set to his music, wondered whether the composer deliberately set about to create music that was so difficult. Botstein talked around the question, prompting the young woman to point out, “In other words, you don’t know.” Over audience laughter, McMillen jumped in to explain Stravinsky’s cut-and-paste compositional method of composing rhythmic cells and assembling them into deliberately off-kilter phrases.

When another listener asked the pianist how he went about learning such a tricky score, McMillen offered detailed insight into the performer’s process. The questions were evidence of an engaged and curious audience, regardless of their level of knowledge. While some of the audience deserted the hall after the lecture, most returned for the concerto, cheered the performance, and stayed for the question period. A heartening sight.

The next “Sight and Sound” event at the Met is on April 22. For information go here.