Program Features Music of Roussel, Henze, Dallapiccola, and Bantock, Plus New York Premiere of Arthur Bliss’s Hymn to Apollo
Philosophers from Plato to Nietzsche used the mythological figures of Apollo and Dionysus to represent human nature at war with itself: torn between reason, discipline, and formal beauty – and sensuality, earthly pleasure, and desire. For Freud, Apollo was the Ego, Dionysus the Id. On May 9 at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall, the American Symphony Orchestra and music director Leon Botstein explore these dichotomous forces in a wide-ranging and richly-hued program of 20th-century works by five European composers. The concert gives listeners the chance to hear which virtues they find more attractive – the Apollonian or the Dionysian – and how the two forces combine and collide to dramatic effect in the listener’s psyche.
The ASO concert will include the New York premiere of Hymn to Apollo by English composer Sir Arthur Bliss (1891-1975), whose music a British poet said “imposed form and beauty upon our strange times.” In his program notes, John Wright of the Arthur Bliss Society describes the piece as taking “on the character of a ritualistic procession, gathering in volume and intensity to reach a climax, and then subsiding again… . In its most majestic moments, the music suggests Apollo the God of the Sun, and reminds the listener that Bliss was to embrace the ceremonial in his role of Master of the Queen’s Music to Elizabeth II.”
Also on the Apollonian side, the program includes Luigi Dallapiccola’s “Frammenti Sinfonici” from the Italian’s Apollo-themed ballet Marsia. As for the Dionysian, there are the two suites from Frenchman Albert Roussel’s ballet Bacchus et Ariane, along with the rarely heard Prelude to The Bacchanals by the British Granville Bantock. And the great German-born composer Hans Werner Henze’s Symphony No. 3 incorporates both poles, from a glowing “Invocation to Apollo” in the first movement to a saxophone-fueled bacchanal in the finale.
In his wide-ranging program essay, Leon Botstein writes about how Nietzsche, Freud, and others – including key 20th-century European composers – saw the crisis of modernity as symbolized by that archetypal struggle between Apollonian and Dionysian forces:
“In the closing section of his classic essay on the relationship between Protestantism and capitalism, the great social scientist Max Weber (an avid music lover) described the predicament of the individual in modernity as an ‘iron cage’. There was no escape in life from the tyranny of rational action. The horrors of the First and Second World Wars vindicated this skeptical criticism of modern life. Music remained an art form potentially immune from such controlling rationality. It had the Apollonian virtues of form and beauty; and at the same time, it could give expression to the joyous irrationalism symbolized by Dionysus.”
The ASO’s influential work on behalf of neglected works and composers continues to earn praise. Los Angeles Times critic Mark Swed, reviewing the orchestra’s January concert of rarities by American pioneer Henry Cowell, wrote: “Leon Botstein, the ASO music director and missionary of musical underdogs, led engaging and idiomatic performances. A hoped-for Cowell revival has had several false starts in recent years. But Friday was a revelation, and this time I think we are finally in business.”
A New York Times review of the ASO’s February program “After the Thaw”, devoted to the music of Soviet composers in the post-Stalin era, stated: “When the American Symphony Orchestra is firing on all cylinders, its concerts can be immensely gratifying. The ensemble has strong principal players and consistently delivers creditable performances. Few programmers mine hidden corners of the orchestral repertory as avidly and shrewdly as Leon Botstein… . No one contextualizes better.”
Maestro Botstein’s pre-concert talks, which he began delivering last season, start 75 minutes before each concert, offering added insight into the rich, unusual programming that characterizes the ASO’s Lincoln Center series. His illuminating talk on the themes of “Apollo and Dionysus” starts at 1:45pm in Avery Fisher Hall, shortly before the concert program.