in: Reviews

April 24, 2010

Discoveries with Boston Philharmonic More Talk, Less Action. Wentink Soars

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There was a lot to discover at Boston Philharmonic’s “Discovery” concert Thursday night, April 22 at Sanders Theatre — Gwyneth Wentink, for one. She is an angel. Her harp took wings in one of very few concertos featuring the instrument, soaring away to breathless heights in Harp Concerto by Alberto Ginastera. Over three movements and a cadenza, all shaped as a continuous and inviting whole, she and her harp took flight into fearfulness and alarm, wonder and marvel, and into the beyond.

“My Salvi harp,” she says in a full-page ad appearing in the program booklet, “gives me the possibility to express myself the way I want. It is unique in its richness of sound and colors and is a true inspiration.” Together, she and her Salvi found opportunities galore in the Argentinean composer’s multihued score that includes some 34 percussion instruments with the harp briefly becoming the 35th in the first movement, where she was called upon to tap out a rhythm with both hands on the harp’s sounding board.

To what extent she could vary the sound of the harp’s strings could be a study in and of itself. There were fleshy, warm, sustained utterances, chilling, rattling strums from fingernails flat against the strings, feathery glissandi and forcefully plucked strings in rapid arpeggios. But back to where she took us in the Ginastera.

Only the audience’s slightest shuffling about could be heard during the pauses between movements, so wrapped up it apparently was in this magnetic performance by the young and gifted Dutch musician. Balance of harp and orchestra, you think, might have been a problem? Hard to believe, but maybe a handful of the harp’s notes could be seen and not heard. Both Gwyneth Wentink and Boston Philharmonic penetrated profoundly into the unusual space of this improbable concerto, both running away with its uncommon personal and mystical folkloric bent.

How lucky! It turns out that soloist Wentink drove from Amsterdam to Madrid, a two-day trip, in order to catch a plane to Boston, this due, of course, to Iceland’s volcano interfering with air travel in Europe.

Yet another discovery for many listeners was the nine-minute cultish and brutish music by Mexican composer, Silvestre Revueltas, a piece about the African-Cuban ritual of snake sacrifice entitled Sensemayá. Since Benjamin Zander mentioned his getting a tip about the piece from Gustavo Dudamel about this music, it may also be of interest to learn that the young conductor and his now well-known Orquesta Sinfónica de la Juventud Venezolana Simón Bolívar can be heard in an explosive performance fresh with youth and ethnic understanding on YouTube.

To open the program with this blockbuster of driven folk rhythms in a seven count (rather than the usual three or four) and to follow it with the Ginastera dares audience and orchestra alike. But the performance, while aiming for hot and fiery, wound up overly worked and loud. Steamy intensity and power generated in Ginastera was absent. The experience was a ritual for the listener as observer rather than an absorbing ceremony.

Still more discoveries came from Zander and his immense and talented orchestra bursting with experience and enthusiasm in a successful exploration of The Rite of Spring. Recast with fabulous colors from many different instruments were quite a number of Stavinsky’s ever amazing orchestral textures. As in their performance of Revueltas’ ritualistic music, Part I of Stravinky’s Rite was overworked. The orchestra did gather up collective steam in Part II, conjuring suspense, which, in turn, allowed the primal outbursts and semi-climaxes their full impact.

The 7:30 pm start time was actually closer to 7:45. The concert began as a lecture-demonstration — “discovery,” as it were. Zander, the teacher, offered all kinds of information on the opener, engaging the audience with unlimited excitement in chanting rhythms. To demonstrate his points, he led the orchestra in excerpts. He did this, too, at still greater length, for the Stravinsky. Total playing time for the three works on the program came to about 70 minutes. With an intermission, the concert ended just after 10 o’clock. Although, for many of his devoted followers, the ratio of lecture to concert brought delight, for me, one of the reasons the concerto reached the heights that it did was because the music was allowed to speak for itself.

The program will be repeated Saturday night 8 pm at Jordan Hall and on Sunday afternoon 3 pm again at Sanders.

David Patterson, Professor of Music and former Chairman of the Performing Arts Department at UMass Boston,  was recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Award and the Chancellor’s Distinction in  Teaching Award. He studied with Nadia Boulanger and Olivier  Messiaen in Paris and holds a PhD from Harvard University. www.notescape.net

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