Leon Botstein makes a cottage industry of ferreting out neglected composers and unknown large works. When the Great Composers series presented the American Symphony (he is its music director) in a Henry Cowell concert, the top tiers of Avery Fisher Hall were empty, as was the rear orchestra. But the audience— unlike the grim faithful at some concerts of unfamiliar pieces—was lively, cheerful, and buzzing.
Cowell, whose prolific output is a touchstone in the vigorous American tradition, lived from 1897 to 1965. Among his contemporaries were Copland, Antheil, and Thomson, while his pupils included Gershwin, Cage, and, believe it or not, Burt Bacharach; Ives and Harrison were among the ones he championed.
His tumultuous life journey consisted of spotty education—in part, fortunately, with Charles Seeger; concerts in Europe and touring in the Far East (amalgamating Eastern influences into his work before it was a trend); four years in San Quentin State prison on a morals charge involving young men (he was paroled in 1940 and pardoned, with his wife’s help); teaching, writing, advocacy, and finally, election to the American Institute of Arts and Letters, followed by other hard-won honors.
Two Cowell works on Botstein’s January program were New York premieres. Atlantis, an unusual theater piece, has nine movements with Hiawatha-style titles taken from myths and nature, and three singers who vocalize. Their rising growls, shrieks, and moans— orchestration egging them on—suggested Meg Ryan’s “I’ll have what she’s having” scene in When Harry Met Sally (which is why the audience giggled). Soprano Heather Buck, mezzosoprano Elise Quagliata, and baritone Jonathan Hays, with hand mikes, were wellprepared good sports.
The other local premiere, Symphony No. 11 (Seven Rituals of Music), included heavy rhythmic drum, prescient minimalism, the bite of xylophone, and tonally joyous folk idiom—in other words, a compendium of Cowell’s present and American music’s future.
Robert Bonfiglio, who introduced the Harmonica Concerto (1962) long after Cowell’s death, was on hand to perform it again. Its harmonic base is sinuous Near-Eastern scales, particularly in its dramatic third-movement cadenza. Bonfiglio must be the world’s reigning master of the classical harmonica—his strong seamless breath in service of the line hid the inhale-exhale associated with harmonica playing.
The concert’s mostly post-incarceration works gave an idea of what Cowell is about: folk-rooted melody, tonal and bitonal harmony, mixed-culture timbres, tone clusters, prepared piano, and sturdy forward movement rather than intricate rhythms or counterpoint. (Too bad there was no room for his chamber works or poignantly lyrical songs, which are worth nosing into.) One wondered why Cowell is still neglected—and then, unfortunately, knew why he is. The sum did not soar above its interesting, resonant, visionary parts.
Botstein conducted more than serviceably as his orchestra laid out with crispness and spirit a lengthy program of non-standard works. More detached than Koussevitzky, Bernstein, or Dudamel, Botstein displays pieces, inviting listeners to make their own conclusions, such as: a couple of these pieces belong in the mainstream, but, like many Botstein finds, the collection left a sense of gratitude for attention paid, without desire for a sequel.