“We go out of a concert and we all heard something different,” John Harbison said before Thursday night’s premiere, on April 8, of his new Double Concerto for violin, cello and orchestra; and any of us who heard it could point to different things in it that evoked fascination and love. This piece is not much like his earlier Double Concerto for oboe, clarinet and strings (1985), but it received a fine performance with the Boston Symphony with excellent soloists, Mira Wang, violin, and Jan Vogler, cello, a married couple. The sponsoring organization was the Friends of Dresden Music Foundation, who provided part of the commission to honor Roman Totenberg, for many years a member of the BSO, a professor at Boston University, and director of the Longy School. Totenberg himself came on stage to receive part of the standing ovation; he will be 100 years old next New Year’s Day.
Harbison’s new concerto begins with a dialogue between major and minor thirds played against each other in the solo instruments. Such cross-relations — chromatic differences, like between C and Csharp, across or between different parts — are “unnecessarily pejorative in implication — they are often beautiful,” as the composer’s program note reads. (I couldn’t agree more, and anyone who has questions should listen to British church music from Tallis to Purcell, or look at m. 14 of Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion.) The dialogue of major versus minor becomes insistent from time to time as the broadly sweeping solo instruments move over wide melodic areas. But the effect of these cross-relational “misunderstandings” is to reinforce the tonal stability of the triads to which they belong. I remembered how Debussy does the same kind of thing in his Etude no. 4 (Sixths), and even William Walton, as a basic structural element of his Viola Concerto. Both soli kept up a busy back-and-forth concertante, like a vigorous argument while they smiled at each other.
Before the concert, Harbison spoke of the “liking of a chord and wanting to make it normative,” and part of his search included the “blue third” that “isn’t on the keyboard but it’s the common ground of folk music” around the world. He remembered the blue third, with mixed major and minor, as a basic ingredient of his youthful experience as a jazz pianist; of late he has been practicing to recover some of those long-dormant skills and remarked about the “thickened melodic line, fanned out to six lines” from a single voice — “It’s fun to write because one can color every chord.” This texture may have been elusive in the second movement of the concerto, an expressive Notturno with a certain Schoenbergian lilt and a generally discreet accompaniment, but it was certainly apparent in the bright finale. The brightest part of the tonality was the open-string sound of plenty of A minor, as in Brahms’s Double Concerto, and the wide-ranging melodic lines in both soli that also had the spirit of 19th-century Viennese Lieder. But at the end, when the two soli play the same melody together, two octaves apart, the sound was like Ravel’s String Quartet and its double-octave second theme in A minor. A delicate burst of percussion in the final measures was followed by col legno strokes — with the wooden part of the bow — in both the solo instruments. Col legno usually doesn’t work in solo strings, and one needs a full string section to get good sound; but here the gesture was a salute, and just right.
The front of the Symphony Hall stage had been extended with extra platform space to accommodate the Mahler Seventh Symphony, which was the second half of the program. The Harbison orchestra seemed diminished by the extra space around it. Still, some of the time the orchestra seemed too large for the soloists, and I found myself wondering whether the composer might at some point have thought it advantageous to cut down the number of strings; I remember the last work of Walter Piston (Harbison’s teacher and mine), a Concerto for string quartet, winds and percussion, where the instrumental balance and contrast were both at a maximum.
Carlos Kalmar, visiting from Oregon, had to learn Harbison’s score in a hurry when he took over from an ailing James Levine, and he can be congratulated for his good work. Kalmar’s conducting is precise and elegant; a large gesture got a large response, his small gestures were carefully followed, his left hand was fully independent, and his accents were clean every time. Like most younger conductors, he bends his knees too much, but this is a small complaint; I have seen too many guests at the BSO relying on histrionics far more egregious than this. But at further performances he should make sure the trumpet doesn’t play so loud — the brass in general needs to save their muscles for the Mahler.
As for Mahler’s Seventh, it is one of his most refractory symphonies; in my opinion only the Eighth is more difficult, and only the Third is longer (the Seventh weighs in at about 78 minutes). It seems at once a jumble of Mahler’s own previous styles; the first movement, a gigantic march, is a mixture of Kondukt (dead march) like the beginning of the Fifth Symphony, and with faster march themes very close to the first movements of the Second and Sixth Symphonies. One feels as though one has heard this before, and yet… There are extraordinary sounds, dominated by the imperious and imperial Tenorhorn, with its massive, round, heavy sound in the high register. I couldn’t see from where I was sitting, and I wanted to know whether the instrument was a euphonium (tenor tuba), which is played with a cup mouthpiece, or a Wagner tuba (Waldhorntuba), which uses a horn mouthpiece. The solo was full of a vibrato that was not quite French, but amply frightening. For the rest of the very long movement, especially in the faster sections, Mahler’s counterpoint becomes dissonant to the point of grotesque; but this is one of his outstanding characteristics even from his First Symphony, and nearly to the point of atonality in Das Lied von der Erde where it is even sensuous.
The three middle movements of the Seventh are the most appealing and the most successful. The second and fourth movements are night pieces, Nachtmusik as Mahler called them, featuring dialogues of horns (minor third echoing major third) in the second movement and quasi-serenade dialogues of oboe, horn, mandolin and guitar in the fourth. (The mandolin appears again even more effectively as a Chinese instrument in Der Abschied, the final song in Das Lied von der Erde.) The calm F major of the fourth movement has aural images from the famous Adagietto of the Fifth Symphony, and also from the similar sections in the same key in the second movement of the Fourth Symphony; these are songlike in the spirit of Schubert, but they also, typical for Mahler, seem to have an appoggiatura on nearly every downbeat. Both the second and fourth movements are shorter than the first and fifth but still they are quite long; the third movement, a scherzo marked Schattenhaft (ghostly), is shorter still, and nicht schnell but very fleet, with plenty of triplet eighths in 3/4.
To those not well acquainted with Mahler’s other works, the Rondo finale of the Seventh must seem close to madness. Not even the Burleske movement of the Ninth has such a wild assortment of seemingly inconsistent orchestral styles. There are two main rondo themes, a brass chorale like the one in the rondo of the Fifth Symphony (and similar to the beginning of the first scene in Wagner’s Meistersinger), and a 3/2 passage of two half notes and four eighths. But Mahler’s tempi change so continuously, hardly pausing for breath, and the tonality jumps from key to key just as frequently, that the voyage is of extreme storminess throughout. After so many years I am still not used to these violent changes of mood and shifts in continuity, but after last night’s performance of the Seventh, and especially after its finale, I have a better idea of some of Berg’s influences in the equally frenzied Marsch of his Three Pieces for orchestra, op. 6. (To be fair, in Mahler’s 590 measures there are 80 different tempo indications, as opposed to 75 in Berg’s 174 measures.) Carlos Kalmar made a point of exaggerating the differences in tempo, which is the more problematic because Mahler never left metronome indications for a guide.
One needs to hear this music many times before it can fully make sense. But whatever the perceptual difficulty, there was no doubt about the fine playing by the Boston Symphony, and Carlos Kalmar was an outstanding guide along a treacherous emotional pathway. I can remember when the BSO played Mahler’s Third Symphony for the first time in 1962, directed by Richard Burgin (Charles Munch was not at home in much of Mahler’s music), and how baffled were so many of the audience. With Mahler and the BSO, things turned around in 1966, when Erich Leinsdorf recorded the Sixth Symphony, a really outstanding performance. Last night’s performance of the Seventh, no matter how psychically disturbing, is another trophy on that distinguished shelf.