If anything, Vaughan Williams got a little lost in the bravura breadth of the programming on the first weekend, though he is less likely to after the second, which will feature an exceedingly rare production of his Falstaff opera, “Sir John in Love,” the “Sinfonia Antartica” and the Symphony No. 8, as well as a smattering of works for smaller ensembles. Of the six concerts I heard, one surveyed the popular music of Vaughan Williams’s time, with which he appeared to have barely a tenuous connection, while two were dedicated to his scores alone.
Three other performances roamed the contexts in which he worked, and they were outstanding, an ideal fusion of intellectual insight and musical integrity. The first, introduced by the musicologist Eric Saylor, sketched out the dominance of Brahms in turn-of-the-century British composition, through Parry, Stanford, Bruch and the like; another, with winking commentary from Adams, looked at art songs. The third investigated the fraught relationship between Britain and France at either side of World War I, focusing on the influence of Ravel on Vaughan Williams during their lessons in 1907 and ’08. As the tenor Nicholas Phan, the pianist Piers Lane and the Ariel Quartet showed with a cutting “On Wenlock Edge,” a cycle of Housman poems that Vaughan Williams completed in 1909, the Englishman was no copycat, but he learned much from Ravel about how to refine a mood.
Young artists excelled in all these concerts, not least the pianist Michael Stephen Brown, whose poised refinement made an early student piece by Smyth, her Sarabande in D minor, sound like a mature masterpiece. The players of The Orchestra Now, a training ensemble at Bard, played creditably in the two concerts that they contributed to as well.
But in those, alas, the old Botstein dilemma came to the fore. The conductor bows to nobody in his zeal for neglected art, nor in the taste for intellectual provocation that was amply on show in remarks here, but he can lack the insight and technique that would allow the overlooked truly to shine.
Such was most detrimentally the case in a program that tried to present Vaughan Williams as an experimentalist, through three works from the late 1920s and early 1930s: “Job,” the terse “masque for dancing” (that is, ballet) that was inspired by the illustrations of William Blake; the unwieldy, postwar revision for two pianos of the awkward Piano Concerto in C, valiantly tackled by Lane and Danny Driver; and the Fourth Symphony. The readings were competent, to be sure, but not specific enough in their details, especially in the Fourth, which plodded along rather than piercing the air. The edge that makes these works so bold was blunted, the intellectual argument softened.
But Vaughan Williams, at least, still had something to say.