in: Reviews

February 22, 2010

Four Strausses Come Calling at Symphony Hall

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Fiedler’s historic precedents become all the more memorable on February 21 while  I watched  and heard the typically serious-visaged James Levine happily relishing such works as Johann Strauss II’s Overture to Die Fledermaus, Roses from the South Waltz, and the galloping Amid Thunder and Lightning Polka.  Levine and the members of the orchestra were having a great time playing this wonderful music—you could see it in the many on-stage smiles.  What a refreshing change for the players—for a moment or two—from the rigors of the standard and not-so-standard repertoire which is the BSO’s everyday fare these days!

The concert opened on a semi-serious note – semi-serious in that Richard Strauss’s wonderful set of variations he entitled Fantastic Variations on a Theme of Knightly Character illuminate several episodes in Cervantes’s tale about Don Quixote, the wryly confused knight who always doesn’t quite “get it” as he travels the countryside with his rotund sidekick Sancho Panza.  One of the many miracles of Strauss’s musical description of this knight errant is the composer’s obvious affection for his characters.  This work elicited some of the composer’s most variegated and beautifully scored music, yet it never condescends to humiliating the protagonists.  It does, however, colorfully paint the misguided exploits of Quixote and Panza in vivid colors, whether depicting the Knight’s misguided charging of windmills, disrupting of a flock of sheep, or scattering a procession of monks.

The role of Quixote is played by a solo ‘cello, which is given extremely challenging and difficult music, and the role of Panza is played by a violist upon whom are visited similarly challenging solos.  In this concert the solo cello was consummately played by Lynn Harrell who seemed acutely attuned to every odd character trait Quixote offers up. In the role of Sancho Panza, BSO first violist Steven Ansell, who has been a very busy man in Symphony Hall lately, was, in a word, ideal, bringing Panza to life with brilliant and characterful playing of the highest order. The orchestra was equal partner in projecting this marvelous work, with breathtaking ensemble and solo excursions from woodwinds and brass at every opportunity, and there were many.  The closing five minutes of this performance will be long remembered.  Harrell was particularly affecting in his depiction of the dying knight’s final earthly moments, embodying Quixote’s expiring sigh with a smooth and elegantly played downward glissando, and the two woodwind-rich final chords, treacherously scored, were perfectly in tune.

In his friendly program note to his audience, James Levine wrote of how much he loves the music he selected for the concert’s second half, and that he had played these works often in the past.  While this may be so, I had the slightly uncomfortable feeling that not enough rehearsal time had been spent on these gems.  The up-tempo polkas and march fared better than the more extended waltzes, and while one really missed the now-familiar Viennese lilt in waltz playing, where the second of the waltz’s three beats is slightly anticipated, there is no denying the pleasure of hearing this great music—and it is great—played by this orchestra in its present excellent state.

As wonderful as the aforementioned Johann Strauss works were, Josef Strauss’s daring and forward-looking Delirien “won the gold.”  Delirium is special in many ways—its first few measures seem to have no tonal center—we’re kept in suspense as to where this music is going to lead.  Dramatic tremolando strings create a sense of foreboding – this in a waltz?  But the atmosphere clears somewhat, and we are swept into the work’s haunting opening phrase, the first of several moments in this masterwork that seem to say one thing, but imply another. This sense of unrest, of a slightly off-kilter perspective is maintained for almost the entire work, which only at its end emphatically brings home the happiness and contentment most waltzes are meant to express.  If you don’t know Delirium, a good place to start is with Nikolaus Harnoncourt and the Vienna Philharmonic’s 2003 New Year’s Concert CD on Deutsche Grammophon.  It will challenge any misgivings you may have of this wonderful repertoire.

Kudos to Levine and the BSO for bringing us this intriguing concert!

John W. Ehrlich is music director of Spectrum Singers, which he founded 29 years ago. He has been a singer and conductor in the Boston area for more than 30 years.

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