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Tetzlaff Saves Day after BSO Announcement


Christian Tetzlaff, Marcelo Lehinger and Sir Harrison Birtwistle (Michael Lutch photo)

By any measure, the March 3 Boston Symphony Orchestra concert was a miracle. The announcement of James Levine’s withdrawal from conducting all programs for the rest of the season came on Tuesday, March 1, and by March 3 his appointee, Brazilian Assistant Conductor Marcelo Lehninger was at the ready in good spirits. Fortunately, the German violinist Christian Tetzlaff did not withdraw, because he was soloist in all three works on the program, which, contrary to next week, remained as planned: Mozart’s Rondo in C major, K. 373, Sir Harrison Birtwistle’s new Violin Concerto, the BSO’s only commission this year, and Bartók’s Violin Concerto No. 2.

Tetzlaff, who will be forty-five in April, was born in Hamburg, made his debut as a violinist at the age of fourteen, and after the Musikhochschule in Lübeck, came to Cincinnati, Levine’s home town, to study with the German violinist and Levine’s close friend, Walter Levin. Thereafter he became an extraordinarily active soloist throughout the world. He has performed with the BSO ten times since 1990, thrice under Levine since 2006, so he is well-known to Boston audiences—this one seemed delighted to welcome him back, with several well-deserved standing ovations. Just for the record, since 2002 he has been playing a violin by the German violin maker, Peter Greiner, modeled on a Guarneri del Gesú, in preference to his earlier Stradivarius. He and his sister formed the Tetzlaff Quartet (touring the U.S. in April), all but one of whom play Greiner instruments.

Somewhat less than miraculous was the opening tasty appetizer, Mozart’s Rondo, scored for violin and small orchestra (two oboes, two horns, and strings). Summoned to Vienna, by his employer, the Archbishop Colloredo of Salzburg, Mozart finished the work in April, 1781 and it was performed within the week at the residence of Prince Rudolf, the Archbishop’s father. Mozart was also performing his new Sonata for Violin and Piano in G major, K. 373a, there that night when he would rather have been playing for the Emperor at a different residence. Furious at being treated like a servant, Mozart broke with the Archbishop in June and remained as a free-lancer in Vienna until his death in 1791. This is a charming piece, full of courtly gaiety, but Tetzlaff and Lehninger seemed to have had a different idea of the tempo — Tetzlaff’s spirited, and Leninger’s stately, which they never quite resolved. Otherwise the performance was radiant as only the BSO strings can project. (Tetzlaff has performed this once before with the BSO at Tanglewood in 2005 under David Robertson, but these are the only appearances of this work in the BSO’s repertoire.)

The performance of Sir Harrison Birtwistle’s new Violin Concerto more than made up for the earlier disjunction. His music has been rarely performed by this orchestra, starting with a non-performance of his Tragoedia scheduled for December 4, 1970, but cancelled by Michael Tilson Thomas as “not yet ready to go as well as he thought it should,” Michael Steinberg reported. Only his Shadow of the Night (2001) has been performed here under Christoph von Dohnányi in 2005, while he was in residence at Harvard University. He has written only two other works for solo instrument and orchestra: Antiphonies (piano, 1992), and The Cry of Anubis (tuba, 1994). The simply titled Concerto  begins with an intense, triple fortissimo solo violin flourish of intervals going up to a high D, held for a while against a tri-tone-producing A-flat below, which eventually falls down to B-flat below middle C, before starting to scratch away at some lower notes. But meanwhile a flute soloist has embarked on a similar flourish at pianissimo<forte>pianissimo, while strings played very soft, sustained notes, thus producing the ethereal colors that one way or another obtained throughout. There were in fact five pylons that established new beginnings: five duets between the solo violin and solo flute, piccolo, cello, oboe, and bassoon, accompanied by a softly twittering chorus of instruments. The solo cello, performed by Martha Babcock, was particularly affecting. The three percussionists, playing a large battery of fifteen instruments, and low brass, especially the tuba, also took their turns in providing solo texture, while Tetzlaff played almost constantly in a very difficult role, absolutely dancing with the notes that were formed in gestures rather than phrases throughout. This was a brilliant essay in orchestral color, brilliantly performed. At the end both Tetzlaff and the orchestra members seemed to be congratulating each other, and  Birtwistle appeared to be equally pleased on stage.

Bartók’s Violin Concerto No. 2 was written in Budapest for the violinist Zoltán Székely between August, 1937 and December, 1938 while the composer was increasingly worried about the changing political situation in Germany and Austria. Already he was negotiating with Boosey & Hawkes (London) to become his publisher instead of Universal Edition (Vienna), and refusing to perform as a pianist in Germany.  The first movement of Bartók’s Violin Concerto, Allegro non troppo, is nonetheless spirited and animated—altogether bright and shining—and alternates fast and slow passages. The harp is a prominent sound in various moods throughout, and Jessica Zhou rose to the occasion with sensitivity to each one. Tetzlaff’s cadenza was performed with pure fire. The second movement (Andante tranquillo) is a set of variations in which the soloist plays with various groups of instruments in turn, and the third (Allegro molto) runs by in a rollicking three-quarter time. There is a twelve-note “row” theme found in the outer movements, which, though never numbered, was reported by Yehudi Menuhin to be Bartók’s proof to Schoenberg that a composer can use this scheme and yet retain tonality. This work, like others of this period, is also less influenced by his researches into Hungarian folk idioms. Lehninger’s conducting, which before had comprised chiefly outlining time patterns during the first two pieces, finally emerged into a looser style in which his body was fully engaged.

The juxtaposition of the Birtwistle and the Bartók was amazingly salutary, in spite of the years separating their composition. The dissonances set forth in the Birtwistle were somehow both enhanced and resolved in the Bartók. Tetzlaff’s performance throughout, especially given the circumstances, was the truly miraculous element in this concert, not soon to be forgotten by either the orchestra members, who were finally all smiles, and the audience.

Mary Wallace Davidson has directed the music libraries at Radcliffe, Wellesley, Eastman School of Music, and Indiana University. She now lives in the Boston area.


10 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. Ms Davidson,
    ‘Sir Harrison.’ Please forgive an English teacher / copy editor correction for your fine review (especially the detailed walkthrough of the Birtwistle sequence, which does not much lean on the program note), but it’s never ‘Sir Birtwistle.’

    Comment by david moran — March 5, 2011 at 8:38 pm

  2. GO GO GO. Leave your children with the dog, if you have any progeny still at home. Lock them up where they can’t get into trouble. No children any more? Then you have no excuse. Another engagement? Call in sick. No matter what: Don’t miss Christian Tetzlaff in the Bartok Concert No. 2. You have Tuesday night to go and you should not forgive yourself if you miss it.

    I hear tell (from a Reliable Source) that the Miami New World Symphony provided a performance better than the BSO’s, overall. but no mind; this is what we have at hand, and Lehninger did a fine job. As for Tetzlaff his expressiveness, from eat-it-up bravura to beautiful clear-as-delicate-crystal pianissimos, should stay with you for life.

    Comment by Norton, Bettina A — March 5, 2011 at 10:56 pm

  3. Thanks, David. We can always count on our readers to do the final proofreading- though I’m sure you will agree that our illustrious editor usually gets it right.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — March 5, 2011 at 11:19 pm

  4. Thanks indeed for the correction, always welcome. I wanted to add that Sir Harrison’s commission was supported by the New Works Fund awarded by the Massachusetts Cultural Council (MCC), a state agency. This fund apparently no longer exists, but eight composers now hold Artist Fellowships totaling $30,200 of the $119,500 awarded to composers, playwrights, and sculptors announced on Feb. 1–see However, the Governor’s budget for FY 2011 calls for a cut of roughly $700,000, or 7%, of the MCC’s overall allotment of $8.4 million, most of which is earmarked for capital projects. Stay tuned.

    Comment by Mary Wallace Davidson — March 6, 2011 at 2:23 pm

  5. In reference to Antiphonies (piano concerto) and The Cry of
    Anubis (tuba concerto) as being his only other works for solo instrument
    and orchestra:

    Birtwistle does have several other works that he considers concerti. In
    the pieces, the soloist is often “shadowed” by a secondary musician, but
    they are not double concerti (nor does he see them as such). These
    include Endless Parade (trumpet concerto) and Panic (saxophone

    Comment by Carson Cooman — March 7, 2011 at 5:07 pm

  6. Responding to Carson Cooman, yes, indeed my point was intended to refer only to works for solo instrument and orchestra, as I said. The program notes mentioned other concerted works, as do you. “Ëndless Parade” is for trumpet, strings and vibraphone. “Panic” is for alto saxophone, drum kit, wind, brass, and percussion. Yes, these are “concerted works,” but the sounds of the instruments employed with the soloist are very different from a full orchestra.

    Comment by Mary Wallace Davidson — March 7, 2011 at 7:36 pm

  7. Yes, the sound does have the potential to be different, but I would argue that the dialectic Birtwistle employs in nearly all his concerti involves some aspect of the main soloist combined with major roles from other solo players in the ensemble. The new violin concerto absolutely had that throughout (in the numerous duets which you mention). This is largely same principle that is at work in a piece like “Endless Parade”, which is very much a solo trumpet concerto, with the vibraphone as a short of shadow partner in the orchestra.

    I guess my real point was just clarifying that Birtwistle has written a number of concertante-type pieces before (even beyond the two additional ones we’ve mentioned here) — not just the piano and tuba concerto — regardless of whether or not one uses the word “orchestra” only to mean a full symphony orchestra and not the string orchestra with percussion of “Endless Parade.”

    Comment by Carson Cooman — March 7, 2011 at 9:06 pm

  8. I just came back from Tuesday night’s BSO fest, and so agree with our esteemed editor, that this was an occasion not to be missed. Even if you had children, which I don’t, I would’ve stashed them in a Home for Wayward Infants, or something, if I couldn’t get a sitter, just to be able to hear Tetzlaff, and of course the more than estimable substitute conductor solutions that the BSO is finding itself suddenly faced with. Lehninger was very fine, with the inevitable sighs of “what-might-have-been” upon reading the program insert the past two weeks gradually replaced by a sense of relief that all hasn’t gone shoosh, right down the tubes. But Tetzlaff! What a guy! This Levine-conceived program (one soloist for all three works) was fortunately not scuttled in face of the podium panic. I first encountered Tetzlaff live at his master class at NEC about two years ago. To say that was revelatory is to say the sky is blue (well, after this winter, maybe that IS news). A student would come on stage, play something that sounded, hey, pretty good to me. Let’s see if Tetzlaff can find anything critical to say about what we’ve just heard. Then, with lavish examples of impeccable phrasing and spot-on riffs, Tetzlaff, while ever so solicitous of and caring for his charges, played circles around them. I staggered out of there two and a half hours later – only to lose my sure footing again last night after Tetzlaff’s Bartok Violin Concerto. I’m still wobbling., Such music-making made one feel lucky to be in that audience, which for a Tuesday night, exhibited only the usual empty seats. Sir Harrison’s concerto was a bit of an uphill battle for me. Just how much I wasn’t getting from it was suddenly answered by the opening solo harp of the Bartok. I’m almost back on my feet again. Levine is Levine, yes. But if things like last night can be pulled off so well without him, I think enough is there in place to augur well for BSO in the future.

    Comment by Henry Hoover — March 9, 2011 at 10:16 am

  9. RE: last night’s BSO concert.
    Yes…The Bartok Violin concerto #2 was a mind-altering performance. Tetzlaff’s gifts are otherworldly. Lehninger’s conducting removed my previous reservations. The BSO playing was perfection…one would think there had been at least a dozen rehearsals. Clearly the musicians are enthuisatic re: this assistant conductor. I’m sure we will have future opportunities to hear him.

    Although played to perfection, Sir Harrison’s concerto is very difficult to fathom.

    The Hall was 3/5ths full but the audience was quiet and attentive…the music was rarely interrupted by coughing and seat banging was minimal.

    Comment by Ed Burke — March 9, 2011 at 4:12 pm

  10. A very belated comment. It was great to see a photo in the NY Times today from Carnegie Hall of Lehninger with both feet off the ground. I’m not a devotee of conductorial hijinks, but when I saw his feet leave the podium in Symphony Hall I had to smile. We’ve moved on to the post-Levine era!

    Comment by Bill — March 17, 2011 at 9:52 am

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