in: Reviews

December 9, 2009

BU Symphony Revelatory in Harbison, Schumann

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The Boston University School of Music occupies an unusual position among Boston’s plethora of musical educational institutions, being a true conservatory embedded within a general university, contrasted to a music department within a liberal arts program. The public should bear this in mind when choosing concerts to attend. As these pages have noted before, the members of the BU Symphony Orchestra are proto-professionals who perform to levels comparable to those in our standalone conservatories’ ensembles, which is to say that they are the equals of the professional orchestras of many an American or European city.

All of this is prologue to saying that BUSO concerts are as appropriate a place as any to hear the premiere of a major work by a composer of John Harbison’s eminence. That, of course, is just what happened on December 8 at the Tsai Performance Center, along with several other goodies. The program opened with the overture to Verdi’s I Vespri Siciliani (originally produced in France in 1855 under the name Les vêpres siciliennes), conducted by BU DMA student Tiffany Chang. The plot of the opera conjures a love story that ultimately ties into the revolt of the Sicilians against French rule in 1282; Verdi’s overture uses the Rossini model of arraying themes suggesting the dramatic development, rather than essaying a more abstract musical argument. Ms. Chang obtained a fine delicacy in the opening bars, leading to a fairly straightforward, down-the-middle reading. Her podium deportment was likewise moderate—restrained but not minimalist. The orchestra responded with great precision and, when called for, flexibility.

John Harbison, who sits at the dais of America’s leading composers, wrote his double bass concerto, styled a Concerto for bass viol and orchestra, in 2006. Its world (in Canada) and US premieres took place a month apart, and it has been performed several times since, but the BUSO performance was its local premiere. There is no great abundance of concerto repertoire for this instrument, but what there is owes much to Edwin Barker, since 1976 the principal contrabassist (to use its other common name) of the Boston Symphony; he has given world and local premieres of much of the contemporary repertoire, and was at the top of his form in Mr. Harbison’s work. The use of the somewhat archaic term “bass viol” nods, according to the composer’s program note, to its status as the oldest, developmentally, of the string instruments in common use. Harbison should know, what with his conducting of much early and Baroque music. The concerto itself acknowledges and reflects Baroque antecedents in its movement titles (Lamento, Cavatina, Rondo) and its refusal to let the soloist do combat with the orchestra in 19th-century style, as well as in the open-fifths passage that begins the piece and creates the motivic kernel of the first movement.

The lament of the first movement is not of the keening sort, but one of dignified restraint, becoming ever more lyrically elegiac but breaking off (prematurely?) before succumbing to any temptation to grandiloquence. The Cavatina creates melodic sense from a mordent-like figuratation, developed and extended in lyric manner, climaxing in a passage of rapid figuration in the solo part (suggesting an operatic cavatina) against a calm chorale-like background in the orchestra, until the latter extends the soloist’s outburst. The finale presents ideas more rhythmic than in the prior movements, with the one and only brief passage in which the soloist gets down with a jazzy pizzicato. Overall, this is a work of immense charm and, despite a harmonic palette reminiscent of 1940s post-populism, originality. The writing for the bass defies expectations: light, airy, much extending high notes with harmonics. I would love to hear this again; one hopes it will be recorded. The orchestra, with music director David Hoose now at the lead, was evidently on top of everything: they sounded great, and Barker not only sounded wonderful, but was, to look at him, having a wonderful time. So did the audience.

Hoose was overheard before the concert opining that the Schumann Second Symphony was the greatest ever, a point he made somewhat differently in his program note, in which he called it “as perfect a symphony as exists.” De gustibus non est disputandum, but Hoose made his case as passionately in performance as he did (at some length) in writing. He was clearly driven by a firm idea of what the piece is about, and his was a high-concept performance from beginning to end: taut, driving, and clipped, with undiminished tension in the first movement, demonic energy in the scherzo, a lyric respite in the slow movement that nevertheless kept tension mounting, and a finale brimming with qualified triumph. The pace in the fast movements was breakneck, but the orchestra turned brilliantly on every dime. Let it not be thought that there was anything slapdash about this performance—on the contrary, Hoose molded every phrase with infinite care, and integrated all into his encompassing architectural vision. Schumann could not have asked for a better advocate than David Hoose, and the BUSO proved a medium completely and vibrantly at his service in bringing that advocacy home.

See related article here.

Vance R. Koven studied music at Queens College and New England Conservatory, and law at Harvard. A composer and practicing attorney, he was for many years the chairman of Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble.

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