in: Reviews

March 12, 2009

Conductor Gilbert’s Sensitive Control Emphasizes BSO’s Music-playing

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New Yorkers can look forward joyfully to Alan Gilbert’s accession to the podium of the New York Philharmonic, but Boston was favored this past week. I was very impressed with his visit to the Boston Symphony (I attended on March 10), a group he already knows well from his years in the audience as a student at Harvard. He exhibits the highest degree of sensitive control, expressiveness, good taste, and communication to the orchestra, much like his predecessors, Bernstein and Mehta, but without their ostentation and theatricality. He draws attention to the music, not to himself, and to the different regions of the orchestra outlining their roles in the performance, but not to his own coordinating function, which even if it is central never overpowers the concerted whole.

Gilbert chose an unusual opener to the concert, Night Ride and Sunrise by Sibelius (1907), 16 minutes long, which the BSO had not played since 1918. The night ride was obvious enough, with a galoop-galoop dotted rhythm in the strings that never seemed to go anywhere and quickly became tiring. This was succeeded by up-and-down scales in slower woodwind as a background to new melodies in the strings that seemed related to the last movement of Sibelius’s Second Symphony. But all this diffuse rambling was swept away when the sunrise arrived in sudden and resplendent brass, very loud but never shrill; I thought of other noble orchestral sunrises from around this time, especially in Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé (1912) and the final section of Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder (performed 1913). (The brass at the end of the first movement of Debussy’s La mer [1905] isn’t quite sunrise, but rather full-bodied sunlight overhead at noon, dispersing the fog.) This has never been among Sibelius’s most popular works, but I was glad to get to know it better, and the performance was outstanding.

Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini is more highly structured and formally economical than the title would indicate. It consists of 24 variations, some of them freely expanded into cadenzas, but with an overall layout roughly corresponding to a three-movements-in-one form, fast-slow-fast. The theme from Paganini’s 24th Caprice was the springboard for one of Liszt’s Grand Etudes, as well as for virtuoso variation sets by Schumann and Brahms and, in our own time, by Lutoslawski; but Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody has always been the best known of all of these, and, of all of his works for piano and orchestra, the most grateful to play. It may not be as popular with the public as the immortal Second Concerto, but neither is it as grandiose and bombastic.

I grew up with a recording of the Rhapsody played by Julius Katchen and the London Philharmonic under Sir Adrian Boult, and I never heard a better one; but Tuesday’s performance was certainly of that caliber. Stephen Hough has some of the finest jeu perlé and pianissimo that I have ever heard in person, and there was plenty of both in this splendid performance; the audience jumped to its feet in deserved response.

After the intermission came one of the 20th-century’s toughest nuts ever, Charles Ives’s Fourth Symphony. Ives never completed this enormous work; he assembled it from miscellaneous sketches and fragments over a period of at least 20 years before 1916 and constantly changed his mind about its fundamental structural conceptions and how he wanted to realize ideas that he may never have fully formulated. The orchestral approach to much of it, particularly the second and fourth movements, was radical, including simultaneous sections in different tempi and meters that required coordination by a second conductor (Ives thought that two sub-conductors would be needed), and it is no wonder that the symphony as a whole did not reach a performable state until 1965, 11 years after Ives’s death, when Leopold Stokowski conducted the premiere with the American Symphony Orchestra. The recording they made that year remains historic; the score was published as well, but many, many questions about Ives’s intentions still remain unanswered, like his famous chamber piece.

The stage setup was already a challenge. At the rear, in a corner, was a scaffolding supporting several very long tubular bells and a player on an elevated platform; in the opposite rear corner, a chorus of about 25 singers of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus. At the near end of the first balcony, on the right, was a group of two solo violins and harp, Ives’s miniature “distant choir.” Within the orchestra were two pianos, one an “orchestral piano” played four hands, and a solo piano nearer to the front of the stage. Way off to the left was the organ console, seldom occupied during orchestral concerts as it was last night. In front of the second violins, very close to the conductor, was an electronic setup, a theremin* in fact, with two antennas and a speaker. This device operated only during the second and fourth movements and was never audible except during very quiet passages, and it was probably a valid equivalent of the “ether organ” that Ives occasionally cued into the score.

The first movement, called “Prelude,” features the “distant choir” answering loud, ponderous gestures in the main orchestra with an ethereal ostinato that remains “scarcely audible” at the end of the movement; in between the chorus goes through two verses of Lowell Mason’s beloved hymn, “Watchman, tell us of the night,” in D major, which can be regarded as the symbolic overall tonality of the symphony because the same key closes the fourth movement.

The “Comedy” movement is the most complicated part of the entire score. It was fascinating to hear this pandemonium up close – incredibly loud and shrill, busy with noise in which almost no separate melodic or rhythmic features could be distinguished except occasionally when the ensemble slowed for an instant of breath. I was puzzled, however, by the theremin. I think it was included as a substitute for the ad libitum quarter-tone piano that Ives indicated in the score while several solo strings play “Beulah Land” in a pellucid F-sharp major. This gentle passage lasted not quite all the way through one verse, and then all hell broke loose once again, everything whirling into a titanic fff climax and then abruptly fizzling out into nothingness.

The finale is intellectually the most difficult movement of the entire symphony. The multiple metric and rhythmic relationships in this movement are furiously complex, with different barlines overlapping and tuplet brackets extending over them, at least in the upper parts; the bass line, however, was solid and relatively straightforward, and it seemed to me that the Renaissance tactus might have been the most secure way to beat time in this movement. (Alan Gilbert used a baton in the Sibelius and Rachmaninoff, but omitted it throughout the Ives.)

The Fourth Symphony as a whole is, I think, a magnificent failure, possibly the most magnificent of all of Ives’s works, but a failure in the same way, and to much the same degree, as we find in much of Ives’s most original, most imaginative music. In the America that brought him to birth and inspired every atom of his life and career, he could not have been, and was not, understood as a composer. Ives knew this as well as anyone, but he lacked the capacity for relentless self-criticism that might have pushed him to follow his own instincts with the technical hard work needed to perfect his vision – nor would that possibly perfected music, in his time, have been any more likely to achieve performance or recognition.

Ives did, in his later years, obtain a measure of respect and even praise, after the premiere of his “Concord” Sonata thirty years after he wrote it, and in his award of the Pulitzer Prize in 1947 for his Third Symphony, composed 1904. In the larger works like the baffling, defective, undeniably wonderful Fourth Symphony, we can discern the outlines, and some of the profound achievements, of one of the most visionary and multifaceted composers of all time, whose work responded as much to the transcendental vibrations of the New England microcosm as to the hidden rhythms of the universe.

*Ed: According to Wikipedia, the theremin, named after its Russian inventor, is an electronic instrument with a controlling section of two metal antennae that sense the position of a player’s hands that control radio frequency oscillators with one and volume with the other.

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3 Comments

  1. One small clarification: there was a quarter tone piano onstage for the optional quarter-tone piano parts in this BSO performance. (This was an upright placed audience left, alongside the other, four-handed, grand piano. The “solo” grand piano was dead center.) The Theremin was used for the “ether organ” cues that Ives wrote into the score at a later date, and also, ad lib., as sound effects in some places, such as during the violin salon recital near the end of the second movement (playing glissandi), and for doubling the first violins (etc.) elsewhere. The Theremin’s placement at the front of the stage had more to do with logistics (electric field logistics!) and its carrying power than with any sense of the instrument as having a solo presence here, although it makes a nice visual effect as well.

    Comment by Robert Kirzinger — March 13, 2009 at 11:38 am

  2. This is an erudite and personal review (Rachmaninov with Mahler!}. The beautiful Pag Vars drew the expected eager reception (this on Friday afternoon.) This was the 2nd time we’ve heard the Ives 4th and were overwhelmed by its mad,exotic and totally commited performance by the BSO playing up to our highest hopes and expectations. Maestro Gilbert and his associate must deserve credit too; but isn’t the BSO so great now? It’;s also great to have another critical voice in Boston. ms

    Comment by morty schnee — March 27, 2009 at 5:46 pm

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