in: Reviews

November 24, 2008

BU’s Excellent Orchestra Assures Future of Classical Music

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The Boston University Symphony Orchestra, appearing on November 24 in Symphony Hall under the direction of David Hoose, gave one of the best performances I have ever heard from a student orchestra, well worthy of comparison with any of the semi-professional orchestras in the Boston area, and a fair challenge for America’s most renowned ensembles.  With such excellent players and such able direction, the future of orchestral music in America seems well assured.  Those who have heard this orchestra before expected no less; I think it was three years ago when I heard the same group, with the BU Chorus, in a stunning performance of Schoenberg’s Five Pieces, op. 16, and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.  Of course the players were different then, but the standards of the ensemble live on.

John Adams’s Fearful Symmetries — the title is from William Blake’s “Tiger, tiger!” — was a work entirely new to me.  It is a colorful manifestation of Adams’s so-called minimalist style — others refer to “process music” in connection with the manifold repetition of patterns, figures, and gestures that characterize Adams’s work and that of other composers such as Philip Glass and Steve Reich.  Adams has regularly revealed a greater interest in harmony than either Reich or Glass, and this work from 1988 is a brilliant example of harmony that evolves by unconventional but clearly perceptible connection from one sonority to the next.  There was a lot of chord-pairing with dominant sevenths a minor third apart, in the Boris Godunov bell-chord manner, no less effective for being very familiar.  At other times, the cumulative effect of massed timbres resulted from upward crescendos of parallel first-inversion triads, a wild chromatic fauxbourdon.  For nearly twenty minutes all of this was maintained with a rapid steady beat and an ebb and flow of mostly very loud textures and constantly changing timbres with explosive gestures of color from different parts of the orchestra, fighting against the prevailing pulse.  The loudest portions seemed to strain the orchestra to the utmost, and yet there was sufficient dynamic contrast to keep the ear from tiring.  Eventually the basic beat itself was submerged in longer and more varied measures, re-emerging later at a softer dynamic; I was reminded of Colin McPhee’s gentle gamelan-like orchestral sound in Tabuh-tabuhan (1936), a major ancestor of American minimalist timbre.  When the entire work faded away in a quiet but still colorful ending, one still had the impression of relentless rapid tempo.  The orchestra for this piece was of normal proportions, with the addition of a group of saxophones, but there was no ordinary percussion except the timpani, a significant workout for a single player; all the other abundant percussion sound was provided by four keyboard synthesizers working overtime, and adding materially to the transparent high-register filigree.

Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé, the complete ballet of 1912, made up the second half of the program.  I had last heard this masterpiece about 20 years ago with the Boston Symphony and Tanglewood Chorus conducted by Ozawa, a good but not memorable performance.  One recalls that this largest work of Ravel’s was a favorite of the Boston Symphony under Charles Munch, whose LP recording from 1955, in a deluxe edition illustrated by Andy Warhol (!), is still treasured (RCA LM-1893).  The orchestra called for is significantly larger than Adams’s — woodwinds by fours, two harps, much percussion, and all five sections of the strings divided two staves apiece in the score; eight contrabasses were the complement here, as contrasted with just five in the Adams.  In all the really excellent playing that was constantly and seemingly effortlessly demonstrated, there were some particularly outstanding examples: the lovely but terribly difficult oboe solo at (rehearsal no. 2); the equally dangerous horn solos  (nos. 44 and 48); the paired clarinets (no. 55); and of course the famous flute solo (no. 176).  But the flawless string sound, with even tone over the entire divisi range, was just as impressive throughout the work, including all the numerous solos.  And Ann Jones gets high credit for preparing the large wordless mixed chorus – about 120 members – with such care and assurance.

I would argue with a few points in the performance of this work that I have always loved so well.  The moment where Chloe is seized and carried away by the invading band of pirates converts mere disturbance into an abrupt instant of sheer terror at m. 435 (5 after no. 66); Ravel marks this with an accelerando but at the critical moment also with a crescendo from f to fff in a single measure; it is sudden, not gradual.  This is one of the scariest moments in Munch’s recording.  I felt also that Hoose’s tempo of the beginning of the Danse guerrière was too fast; it made it nearly impossible for the trumpets and horns to execute double-tonguing comfortably (no. 96), and the conductor found it necessary to moderate the tempo somewhat to allow for the faster tempi yet to come (at nos. 102 and 104), which ultimately came out just right.  At no. 114 even Ravel could miscalculate whether the lowest register of the solo for alto flute could be heard, and it was necessary to keep the accompanying instruments as soft as possible, but we did hear it well.  It’s a good thing that Ravel omitted a metronome marking at no. 130 – Très animé means, here, as fast as possible but no faster.

Chloe’s “supplication dance” beginning (no. 133) has one of the most unusual tempo indications in any music: odd-numbered measures are marked 100 to the quarter and even-numbered 72 to the quarter, with “au Mouvt” and “Ralenti” in alternation throughout the dance (except twice where Chloe tries to run away and is forcibly brought back).  At the end of the dance, when Bryaxis, the pirate chief, lifts Chloe in triumph, “suddenly the atmosphere becomes unusually charged,” and an army of satyrs (chèvres-pieds – these “goat-footed folk” are also found in Ravel’s Trois chansons for chorus) surround and chase away the pirates.  At the culminating moment, the image of the god Pan appears “with a threatening gesture.”  A progression of four chords is heard, with a crescendo from mf to fff; the same chords were heard earlier, when the Pan image appeared at no. 82, but the crescendo at that point only reaches the level of p.

These are small details, however, merely incidental to the praise I have for David Hoose’s conducting, which at every moment was superbly controlled with acute observation and with no inessential gestures.  The one element of flamboyance I noted was his omission of the baton, which I have always thought a hazard to precision, especially with a nonprofessional orchestra.  Not once, however, did I feel that the stick was needed on Monday night.  Hoose is far more than one of Boston’s best conductors; he could be a credit to any ensemble anywhere.

Daphnis et Chloé is one of Ravel’s greatest works, everywhere showing his harmonic and orchestral mastery at their fullest strength.  But Serge Diaghilev, who commissioned it for the Diaghilev Ballets Russes, never put his authority fully behind the original production, and it was not a major success of the 1912 season, which was otherwise dominated by Nijinsky’s very controversial version of Debussy’s Après-midi d’un faune.  Mikhail Fokine’s choreography was appreciated but it has essentially been forgotten, and later choreographers have had even less success.  Joel Sheveloff’s interesting program notes for our performance cite an authority who suggests that Daphnis et Chloé, as a ballet version, should be done on film.  I would add to that: not on a stage but outdoors in a pastoral setting, as several episodes in the Bolshoi Opera’s production of Boris Godunov managed to such excellent effect.

Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert in Alban Berg, also Ravel and Debussy. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (PhD, 1967), he has published extensively on these composers and many music subjects, most notably, music harmony.

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