in: Reviews

February 22, 2010

Strauss of All Sorts at BSO Benefit

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The all-Strauss concert presented by Boston Symphony Orchestra on Sunday, February 21 was an unexpected pleasure. While Richard Strauss’ Don Quixote, featuring cellist Lynn Harrell and violist Steven Ansell, is a big, multi-layered work, at first glance the program seemed unbalanced:  Don Quixote occupied the entire first half, while the second half consisted of an overture, a march, and various waltzes and polkas by three members of the Strauss family (no relation to Richard) who lived in the 19th century. It seemed likely that after intermission, we’d be sitting through light “pops” music, eager to get back out to the sunny Sunday afternoon we’d left.

The performance of Don Quixote was tremendously engaging from beginning to end. From the moment Lynn Harrell ran out on the stage, eager to begin this orchestral opera, there was a sense of being present at a unique unfolding of this work. The music is so dense, so much is happening at once, surely you could listen again and again, and each time a different aspect of the music would be revealed. The exquisite orchestration and the sense of never knowing what might occur next (although the orchestra was quite secure!) made people in the second balcony lean forward in their seats, the better to capture each fleeting musical event. It was a kaleidoscope of sound, fascinating in itself and constantly changing

Lynn Harrell owns the role of Don Quixote. He played with tremendous presence and panache. One never felt that he was working in this fiendishly difficult piece—he was truly playing, enjoying, projecting the many moods and adventures of the quirky Don. You could almost hear the words he was singing, as he ranged from inchoate to eloquent, from a barely heard whisper to a bellow that shook the rafters. Particularly moving was the final “aria” that was reminiscent of the last act of Rosenkavalier, rising in waves of richer and richer voices and harmonies, never forced, always opening to more and more beauty.

Steven Ansell, playing the role of Sancho Panza, was a delightful and expressive foil to the Don. Always in character, he used subtle articulations (some not so subtle!) to paint a portrait of the sidekick, slightly pompous, self-important, sputtering banal pronouncements, a character inhabiting a different universe from his master. Ansell relished the role, and shaped the phrases so convincingly, you could almost hear him rolling his “R’s”. He followed every inflection, every nuance, of the musical harmonies with changes of color and intensity that were masterful.

It was a peak performance for the orchestra, from the sinuous viola section solo at the beginning, and the thick, languid sound of John Ferrillo’s oboe, to the extraordinary, convincing sheep bleats in the second variation, the two bassoons talking to each other (monks on donkeys), the moments of broad comic relief in the winds—all of it kept those of us in the second balcony peering over the rail, not to miss anything. There was so much transparency in this performance, not easy to achieve in this densely written music. James Levine deftly led the orchestra so that the myriad lines were allowed to merge and diverge, revealing the soaring architecture.

After intermission, as we settled back to while away the rest of the concert, we were surprised to find ourselves leaning over the rail again, beguiled by the sparkling texture of the fast passages, the delicacy of timing of the waltzes, the fun of the percussion finishing a phrase. The hall was suffused with musical color and texture, shaped with great care, and never banal. (To his credit, Steven Ansell seemed to be having as much fun with the endless off-beats the violas get to play as he did with the solo role in Don Quixote, and being a violist myself, I admire this as much as I do his excellent solo work.

Finally, in the Radetzky March that ended the concert, the audience started clapping in time to the music. Usually when this happens, the clapping continues through the softer passages, covering up (and spoiling) the subtle changes in timing and mood, but Maestro Levine leaned back and started conducting the audience, indicating when they should clap softly, stop clapping, and then let it rip. There were murmurs of laughter that went through the audience as we became part of the spirit of the afternoon. When Maestro Levine waved the orchestra to its feet, he also motioned to the audience to stand and accept the credit for their skillful handling of their rhythmic contribution. It was a unique ending to an enjoyable and engaging afternoon. The programming was brilliant, as was the performance. And when we got outside, so was the sun.

Gillian Rogell, a violist, is chair of the Chamber Music Department of the New England Conservatory School of Continuing Education, and also teaches at NEC Preparatory School, the Rivers School Conservatory, and Walnut Hill School. Her website is here.

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