in: Reviews

August 3, 2010

Ozawa Hall Concerts Score Again

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Life would be so boring if it were not for the unexpected — the pleasant surprises, of course, being preferable to the alternative. This last weekend at Tanglewood (July 30 through August 1) proved the point.  Two concerts and one rehearsal in the Shed were certainly worthwhile, but two concerts at Ozawa Hall — unexpected treats — made the weekend very special. (Actually, this has proven the case for the past three years, so the “unexpected” quality may be becoming moot.) Because there was no BMInt reviewer covering these, the BMInt executive editor (not a musicologist or music professional) is giving it a stab.

On Friday afternoon at 6:00 pm, woodwind players from the BSO roster performed four delightful works— to the usual standards of this orchestra. No surprise here. The surprise was two pieces not known to this writer: Luciano Berio’s Opus Number Zoo and Schifrin’s La Nouvelle Orléans.

The Ligeti Six Bagatelles for wind quintet that opened he program are justifiably popular, a smorsgabord of  instrumental and dramatic effects.  The repetitive motifs from oboe and clarinet, which could have become painfully dull, were exhilarating in the hands of Principal Oboe Robert Sheena and Associate Principal Clarinet Thomas Martin. The opening measures of the fifth Bagatelle, “Bela Bartok. In Memoriam,” given to the solo flute, were beautifully executed by Cynthia Meyers, who holds the Piccolo chair (but in this concert was mostly playing a flute.)

The players took on the animal voices in Opus Number Zoo, a felicitous change (among several) by Berio to the original scoring that not only brings varietal spice but also heightens the satirical tone of the libretto. The fine program notes by Robert Kirzinger, the BSO’a assistant director of program publications, point out that  “it is not a children’s piece, in spite of its initial impression.” Indeed, the lyrics and delivery do leave one reflecting ruefully on continual violence.

A prominent jazz theme in Schifrin’s La Nouvelle Orléans was played by Associate Principal Clarinet Thomas Martin: masterful bursting crescendo, mournful drawn-out notes, just-right pauses. (Again, readers of the delightful program notes by Kirzinger are warned not to call up Schifrin’s theme music for Mission: Impossible, which would then be impossible to dislodge.)

The performance of Janácek’s Mládí, a particular favorite of this reviewer, was a bit disappointing. The ensemble, it seemed, did not really get the flavor of the generational “dialogue”; the last phrases of the second movement, to this septuagenarian grandmother, are particularly delicious: a youthful chatter from the flute is answered rather forcefully with four notes from the bassoon — two, pause, then the last two in an emphatic fifth, that seem to say very rather pointedly, “Because — I say [so]!”

This reviewer is always taken aback by the relatively sparse attendance at BSO chamber players concerts, held at Jordan Hall. How could people not take advantage of these fine players taking on a repertory not heard in Symphony Hall? Perhaps this goad will help change that. If this program appears in next year’s roster anywhere within Route 128, expect this reviewer to be there.

Makiko Hirata and Augusta Read Thomas, following the concert.

Sunday morning’s concert was too long (over 2 ½ hours, I learned) for this reviewer to stay to the end; a long-standing luncheon invitation precluded that. But it would have been a sorry day indeed if we had missed Makiko Hirata playing Augusta Read Thomas’s Traces, composed in 2006 and given its premiere in 2009. An incredible work, it took the composer “countless months to compose.” But the result is an exhilarating musical treat. She used idioms from Schumann and Crumb in one, Scarlatti and Art Tatum in another, then Piazzola with John Coltrane, Stravinsky with Chopin and Thelonius Monk, Bach with BeBop. Music has its implicit history of other music behind it; but Thomas not only explicitly honors that but also adds a significant nod to today’s popular music culture.

Makiko Hirata was a superb choice to perform this piece: technique to burn, estimably simpatico with the music, lithe fingering and superb understanding of the various idioms. Plus, she has just enough drama with her presentation to assure a rapt audience, all of which, sure enough, produced a standing ovation and cheers.

Christoph von Dohnányi was at Tanglewood this weekend to conduct Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos on Sunday at 7:30. But he did not seem to be in the hall to hear the performance of the Quintet in E-flat minor for piano and strings by his grandfather, Ernö Dohnányi.  An overall contemplative piece, it was played with wonderful intonation and perfect attacks by a group that this summer has been under the tutelage of Andrew Jennings, in the Department of Strings of the Music department at the University of Michigan. He deserves much credit for the fine coaching of this group.

Note: A mature couple were sitting in some of the choicest seats in Ozawa Hall: on the left, in the first row just after the break between rows 6 and 7. For a good portion of the performance, they were doing the New York Time crossword puzzle, the husband alternating with reading the editorial page. The woman next to them was also absorbed in the editorials. After the first piece, this reviewer leaned forward and said to the woman: “Pardon my presumptuousness, but I thought you should be aware that you are in direct line of vision with those young players. They have worked hard to be here this summer, and particularly for this concert, and don’t you think they deserve your undivided attention?”  Didn’t we all learn that if you misbehave, don’t let anyone see you?

Bettina A. Norton, editor of the Intelligencer, is a retired museum professional. She has published widely in her field, American historical prints, and in later years, was editor and publisher of The Beacon Hill Chronicle. She has been attending classical music concerts “since the waning years of World War II.”

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