James Levine’s refractory back trouble has once again driven him from the BSO podium, and all of us can only hope that he will be speedily repaired and recovered. In the meantime, a succession of stand-in masters has been scheduled. This week’s locum tenens is the young Jayce Ogren, recently the assistant conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra, who took over a big BSO program at very short notice. I am going to sharply criticize his conducting style, so let me say from the beginning that I congratulate him for doing as well as he did on Thursday, March 25. He was doubtless wise to request that Debussy’s Jeux be replaced on the program; Jeux is an immensely complex and subtle score and would have required too much rehearsal time when Ogren surely needed every minute he could get for the new work, Peter Lieberson’s Songs of Love and Sorrow, with Gerald Finley as baritone soloist.
The replacement was in fact two works, and they were a serious surprise: Sibelius’s Finlandia and Valse triste. Finlandia is one of the most popular, indeed shameless, pieces of concert bombast of all time; I remember when Roger Sessions, hearing it on a program at Princeton in 1961, called it “the price of admission.” I was astounded to learn, from Robert Kirzinger’s pre-concert talk, that it had not been played by the Boston Symphony in 60 years. The Valse triste, a strangely subtle and lovely piece, was last played by the BSO in 1912 — just eight years after it was composed. Jayce Ogren led these pieces for all they were worth, indeed, holding back the soft strings in the Valse triste to the point of pppp quasi niente when his stick didn’t move at all, and this was effectively contrasted against the Mahler-like Ländler G major spirit of the faster sections. Four solo violins glowed pianissimo at the end. The Valse triste is certainly deserving of occasional revival, but I for one will be happy to wait another 60 years to hear Finlandia in Symphony Hall again.
Many in the audience would have remembered the premiere five years ago of Peter Lieberson’s beautiful Neruda Songs when they were sung by his wife, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, only a year before her death. Last night’s premiere of a sequel, five Songs of Love and Sorrow, also on texts by Neruda, was a moving tribute to the memory of the love they shared. The text setting is crystalline throughout, the declamation wide-ranging but always comprehensible, the accompaniment richly supportive and never overpowering.
Gerald Finley, baritone, was an ideal communicator, with an obvious and full understanding of the expressive text. What is most moving about the whole cycle is the fine sensitivity of the chromatic tonal harmony, reminiscent of Austro-German Impressionism (yes, there was such a thing, though it was influenced by the French variety) by composers that are mostly forgotten today — I thought particularly of Zemlinsky’s Lyric Symphony that inspired Alban Berg, and the operas of Franz Schreker. The beginning of the first Neruda song, “Des las estrellas que admiré…” featured Martha Babcock’s solo cello oscillating back and forth, much like the D minor oscillating fifths in Mahler’s second song, “Autumn loneliness,” in Das Lied von der Erde, and if I’m not mistaken, a variant of this beginning reappeared at the front of Lieberson’s fourth song, “Tal vez no ser es ser sin que tú seas…” — a fine cyclic connection. The oscillating fourths or fifths actually seemed like a leitmotif in the whole cycle, in which the divided strings (sometimes with harp) often predominate in the texture — indeed, I felt that from time to time there was rather too much doubling, and that a more differentiated wind sound would have been welcome. Sometimes there was a wind gesture that stood out, like the clarinets’ parallel thirds, mariachi-style, in the second song, or the horn thirds in the fourth song. The end of the last song, on G, with piano, flute, English horn, and octaves in the strings, was especially effective, reminding one of how tonality, like love, is all-powerful and unifying no matter how varied and chromatically intense. It’s true that a friend of mine, a fellow composer and a very good one, expressed some disappointment in these songs, because he had long admired the gritty atonal environment of Lieberson’s first Piano Concerto, premiered by the Boston Symphony nearly 30 years ago. But the fact is that many of us today are at home in different idioms, tonal and atonal and a spectrum in between, when the individual compositional personality remains consistent. I hope to hear these songs recorded on the same CD as their handsome predecessor. Orchestral songs on Spanish texts are rare enough — Granados’s tonadillas and de Falla’s El amor brujo are good examples — and these very different new songs are splendid additions to that repertory.
After the intermission came Schubert’s “Great” Symphony in C major, D 944, of 1825, composed when he was 28 years old, and the one symphony of his full maturity that he completed (the famous B minor symphony in two movements, D 759, is only the best of half a dozen unfinished Schubert symphonies). The very first Boston Symphony concert I ever attended, in 1954, had this work on the program (conducted by Charles Munch), and it changed my life. Jayce Ogren did his best with it last night, and there’s no doubt that the orchestra brought it off well, but on their own terms and not the conductor’s. Most of the time the players weren’t watching him — even though they undoubtedly knew the music well, they had many thousands of high-speed notes to keep track of. Ogren did succeed in a few manneristic moments, including a long, disturbing ritardando before the first-movement recapitulation and an accelerando before the Più vivo in the coda — neither of which is called for in the score. The second movement, Andante con moto, generally went extremely well, with beautiful expression, especially in the solo winds — though I object to the slower tempo, a habit of almost every conductor, in the Neapolitan section right after the fff climax. The Scherzo also was handled with all the requisite brightness and brisk tempo, including the Ländler that forms the expansive Trio section. But in the finale Ogren failed to override the orchestra’s comfortable Allegro moderato, which is what it sounded like — he certainly tried to push the tempo in the codetta of the exposition and again before the coda, but the orchestra refused to follow. Schumann, who rescued the manuscript of this symphony from oblivion, dubbed it the “Symphony of Heavenly Length,” and nowhere does that appellation apply more forcefully than in the brilliant finale, which Schubert marked Allegro vivace; it is 1154 bars long (1538 bars long if you take the exposition repeat, which nobody ever does). It is absolutely essential to maintain a breakneck speed in this movement, and one conductor who succeeded was George Szell in the older Cleveland recording, made at a time when the Cleveland Orchestra was the best in the world; at a metronome marking of 108-112 to the measure, Szell’s finale weighs in at about ten and a half minutes of amazing energy. Last night’s performance was at a sedate Toscanini-like tempo, more like thirteen minutes. The fortissimo was there, but not the fire and fury.
I would suggest that Jayce Ogren’s conducting style can be blamed for what I missed in the Schubert. He puts forth an unseemly amount of what I think of as a midwestern technique of beating time, with too much mirroring with the left hand, too much conducting with the head, too much knee-bending and moving from side to side, one foot to the other. This makes for a kind of dance on the podium, though it often looks like vertical swimming; there’s no question that audiences like this visual display and expect to see it. But I think it interferes with good communication to the orchestra, detracting from independent motion of the hands, and especially that the large beat makes it difficult to keep precise time in very fast tempo. To Ogren’s credit, I liked when he sometimes beat time with his left hand, using the baton for a different kind of visual control on the right of the orchestra; but when the beat is so high, wide, and handsome, and mirrored left and right, everything looks like a downbeat. (It was said of Fritz Reiner that a fly could sit on the end of his baton for an entire concert and not be shaken off; that is an extreme of another kind, of course.) I also give Ogren top credit for keeping his gestural exaggeration very much in the background in the Lieberson songs; he was admirably concentrated on providing the right kind of support for the singer and on closely observing every detail of a complex score that he had had to learn very quickly.