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Good Performance by Boston Conservatory Orchestra Elicits Musings on Schoenberg, Webern, Ravel


The New England Conservatory has its beautiful Jordan Hall for orchestral performances, but the Boston Conservatory has to look outside its own campus when it expects a large and enthusiastic audience such as appeared in Sanders Theatre in Cambridge on Sunday afternoon, October 25. Whoever had to come in from Boston found a concert well worth the trip. This was one of the two or three best performances I’ve heard in 40 years from a student orchestra, ably directed by veteran conductor Bruce Hangen and a newcomer, Russell Ger. The program, which seemed to be organized around anniversaries, was an exceptionally difficult one, but it was carried off with consummate ease.

Strauss’s Tod und Verklärung (Death and Transfiguration), composed 120 years ago, is still one of his most popular tone poems, with its grand and even lush Wagnerian sound and an easily apprehended program. As the program note pointed out, the title looks back to Wagner’s “Love-Death and Transfiguration” from the most familiar concert excerpt of Tristan und Isolde. I remain convinced that Strauss, busy with his conducting career when he wrote this work, was also remembering the rich C-major sound of Liszt’s Orpheus (1854) and Faust Symphony (1854-57). The Transfiguration theme, beginning with an ascending G-C-D-E, was also in his mind at the very end of his life, when he brought it back in his Four Last Songs. The performance we heard showed really expert playing technique in all departments, and it was refreshing to see how the players gave the conductor total attention where needed; there was some difficulty with balance, in that the very full strings in front were so strong that they actually masked the brass in the rear, which meant that the players had to force their sound. Perhaps this could have been remedied by elevating the heavy players on a platform, but other adjustments might have been needed to cope with the excellent but sometimes complex acoustics of this famous hall. In the end, this difficulty didn’t matter much because the musical realization was so intelligent and sensitive.

Another work with an explicit program, Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night), was originally written 110 years ago for solo string sextet; it remains today Schoenberg’s most popular piece. (“Mr. Schoenberg, why do you no longer compose the way you did when you wrote Verklärte Nacht?” asked an interviewer who was obviously skeptical of Schoenberg’s atonal music; he was promptly squashed by the composer’s reply: “I do, but I can’t help it if people don’t recognize the fact.”) Russell Ger, a recent arrival from Australia, directed Schoenberg’s own better-known arrangement for string orchestra. Many have questioned whether Schoenberg’s arrangement is fully successful, because the contrapuntal texture is often so fleet and wide-ranging that precise fingerwork is extremely difficult for an ensemble. But this group (especially assisted by guest concertmaster Jorja Fleezanis, visiting from Indiana University after a long career with the Minnesota Orchestra) turned in a well-controlled and expressive reading, with expert solo performances and with fine subtlety of tempo and dynamics under Ger’s guidance. (I noticed that the pppp that ends the work was actually louder than the pp that began it, probably because the beginning is marked “immer leise,” quiet throughout.) I felt that Ger’s beat was sometimes too big, verging on the histrionic; many conductors today remember Leonard Bernstein too well; and it’s possible that Ger could have got as much or even more from the group with a smaller beat, though that might have required more rehearsal. (It was said that a fly could sit on the tip of Fritz Reiner’s baton for an entire concert without being dislodged.) But the musical performance was excellent in sound and substance and I didn’t mind the visual part; often the public seems to demand it.

After the intermission we heard Webern’s Symphony, op. 21, in two movements totaling ten minutes’ duration. Bruce Hangen used a baton for this performance, even though the group was a chamber ensemble: clarinet, bass clarinet, two horns, harp, and strings, two on a part without basses. This work was composed 81 years ago and has always puzzled audiences expecting to hear a symphony for symphony orchestra. (Webern’s Six Pieces for orchestra, op. 6, composed exactly a century ago, are short like all of his music, but require an enormous ensemble, with quintuple woodwinds and sextuple brass as well as augmented strings and percussion.) Webern’s pointillistic style, with very spare and often soloistic textures, was fully serialized by 1928. One could hear this piece a dozen times without perceiving any trace of sonata form in the first movement or variations in the second. But the average listener will be gratified from the first by the sensitivity of the sheer sound. Of the three great Viennese, Schoenberg was a problematic conductor and only an occasional one; Berg was never a performer; but Webern was a professional conductor all his life and knew exactly what he wanted from an orchestra. His scores are absolutely precise, and that makes comprehension easier for everybody, even when his ideas are difficult.

Ravel’s La valse concluded the program. This was his first work composed after his nervous breakdown following his service at the front during the Great War; he completed it in 1919, ninety years ago, although he had actually planned to write it before the war. Ravel’s intention was to evoke the splendid decadence of the final years of the Austro-Hungarian empire, much as Berg did in his Three Pieces for orchestra, op. 6 (1914-15), and as Richard Strauss did, without any such intention, in Der Rosenkavalier (1911). It should not be forgotten that in the years after Brahms and Johann Strauss Jr. the best composers of waltzes were more likely to be Frenchmen: Waldteufel (The Skaters, Estudiantina), Chabrier (Valses romantiques), Debussy (La plus que lente), and Ravel especially, whose Valses nobles et sentimentales I wrote about here last spring. La valse is very different from any of these; it is a brilliantly expressive, harsh, uncompromising, even desperate work; its psychology is complex, and small wonder that Diaghilev didn’t like it when Ravel played it for him on the piano. There are considerable problems in the orchestration of La valse, especially in the fortissimo climaxes, where sometimes you can’t tell what pitches are being sounded. I am not at all sure that these problems could even be readily solved without a lot of careful trial-and-error rescoring and rehearsing. Bruce Hangen might even agree with me on this; but he came closer, in this performance, than in any other that I have heard, live or recorded, to bringing out what I think Ravel hoped for. And he kept the tempo uniform and relentless. I have never admired La valse so much as I did at this radiant occasion.

We know that Ravel almost never revised his orchestration; the final dance in Daphnis et Chloé, which underwent major revisions, is the best-known exception. If he had been regularly in charge of an orchestra as were Strauss and Mahler, he might have been able to work out some parts of La valse more effectively (and Rapsodie espagnole too, the other work of his that reveals orchestral problems). One can compare Debussy, who struggled over and over with the score of the Nocturnes and never got Sirènes to the point where he could declare himself satisfied, and who also made significant changes in La mer. Ravel nevertheless was a superbly imaginative and successful orchestrator who almost never missed the mark. (Stravinsky, perhaps not without a touch of malice, called him “the Swiss watchmaker.”) Ravel is not much discussed in college music courses any more, possibly because some of his works — Pavane pour une infante défunte, Boléro, the Piano Concerto — are considered too “popular.” This is too bad, because he was in every way a twentieth-century master, and excepting only Debussy, the greatest French composer since Berlioz.

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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