in: Reviews

October 18, 2009

Peter Serkin playing Igor, premiere of Thomas Helios Choros II, highlights at BSO

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The Boston Symphony Orchestra performed an exceptionally energetic program on Thursday night, October 15, under the baton of former BSO assistant conductor Ludovic Morlot. Morlot, who last appeared with the BSO in 2007, seemed to have retained a strong rapport with the musicians, as the fluidity between the conductor and orchestra demonstrated none of the compromise that often occurs with guest conductors. The evening featured pianist Peter Serkin, performing Stravinsky’s Capriccio for piano and orchestra, as well as Helios Choros II, a new work by Augusta Read Thomas co-commissioned by the BSO and the London Symphony Orchestra. After a rough start, the BSO performed a magnificent program with nearly unremitting energetic force. The concert closed with Tchaikovsky’s Symphonic Fantasy Francesca da Rimini, which demonstrated Morlot’s ability to add momentum and life to a fairly square piece of music.

Peter Serkin with conductor Ludovic Morlot (Michael J. Lutch)

Peter Serkin in BSO photo (Michael J. Lutch)

The opening performance of Martinu’s The Frescoes of Piero Della Francesca fell far short of the typical standards of the BSO. The piece began with a sense of lifelessness and lack of expressive coordination and recovered only moderately by the end of the piece, which is unfortunate considering the performance was programmed to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the composer’s death. These blunders are not at all common among the BSO, and although they infrequently make their mark upon every major orchestra, it’s best not to dwell on them.

Peter Serkin’s performance of Stravinsky’s Capriccio was tireless and animated. The piece was written after Stravinsky had fled from Russia in the 1920’s, so that the composer could perform the virtuosic piece to earn a living in France. While the piece is not among the most performed of Stravinsky’s catalog, it was a great opportunity to showcase star pianist Peter Serkin. From the percussive, forte opening short cascade of notes, Serkin’s performance was  elegant, seemingly effortless, yet perceptive. His playing, visually, is all in his hands, but what a mind lies behind them!

Without doubt the most remarkable, and to many the most anticipated performance of the evening was the American premiere of Augusta Read Thomas’s Helios Choros II (Sun God Dancers). The piece lived well up to its expectations and was delivered immaculately by the orchestra and Morlot, who is no stranger to conducting contemporary music.

<p>Augusta Read Thomas with Ludovic Morlot  (Michael J. Lutch)</p>

Augusta Read Thomas with Ludovic Morlot (Michael J. Lutch)

Thomas is one of the rare composers who not only allows her personality to shine through her music, but allows the many facets of her persona to become concentrated and interact throughout her works. Helios Choros II, like the Stravinsky, was full of dance-like energy– but had a far wider emotional and dynamic range. The piece was much like walking into a room with a handful of very distinct, idiosyncratic characters. They’re having a conversation. Some are interested in what the others are saying, and respond with relevant and affected musical retorts; while others are only interested and hearing themselves speak and interject arrogantly and willfully throughout the piece. The piece seems to revel in this counterpoint of development and non-development with the end goal of establishing an overall dramatic corollary to a collective of musical personalities.

Helios Choros II is the second and longest component of a three-part symphonic triptych. Along with Helios Choros I (commissioned by the Dallas Symphony) and Helios Choros II (commissioned by the Orchestre de Paris), the full work runs roughly around 40 minutes. Elliott Carter’s Symphonia was conceived in a similar manner, as different orchestras commissioned three movements at different times. Nowadays, Symphonia is rarely performed except in its entirety, which begs the question: When will Helios Choros be performed altogether? It would be quite a treat if the Boston Symphony Orchestra would provide the hinges for this splendid work.

Peter Van Zandt Lane is a composer and bassoonist who performs regularly in the Boston area. He is currently pursuing a Ph.D in Music Composition and Theory at Brandeis University.

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