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Frühbeck, Morris Master Die Meistersinger


James Morris and Raphael Frühbeck (Stu Rosner photo)

Wagnerites, perfect and less so, hie thee to Symphony Hall today and Saturday! There you will witness a superb concert of excerpts from Die Meistersinger, the likes of which one rarely encounters, so high was the level of execution on the part of all parties on stage on Thursday, November 3rd.

Mustering with élan, heartfelt musicianship and full authority the considerable forces before him on Symphony Hall’s extended stage was the BSO’s favorite visiting maestro Raphael Frühbeck de Burgos, whose leadership over the past two weeks only further cements the notion that this man belongs in Boston on a more permanent basis than present. The sound of the orchestra was startlingly European – rich, round, full, not a trace of harshness, beautifully blended, strikingly colored and textured. The large assemblage of singers in John Oliver’s Tanglewood Festival Chorus was precise in tuning, rich in timbre, marvelously uplifting and thrilling when singing forte or more, moving and heart-touching when quietly reverent. James Morris, bass-baritone — one of the world’s leading interpreters of Wotan in Wagner’s ring cycle in opera houses world-wide — imbued his reading of Hans Sachs with subtlety and nobility. Clearly suffering from some kind of vocal stress, by evening’s end he was struggling to maintain his high notes, though not one whit of his characterization was wanting. Singing from the rear of the stage, tenor Matthew DiBattista was a bright and soulful David. And TFC member Cindy M. Vredeveld triumphed with brilliant tone in her brief but memorable appearance as Magdalene.

Conducting from memory, Frühbeck de Burgos opened his concert with delectable Haydn: the rarely-encountered Symphony No. 1 in D (1757 or 1759), complete with keyboard continuo elegantly played by John Finney, and the familiar Symphony No. 100 in G, “Military,” conducted at its 1794 premiere in London by the composer to great acclaim, so much so that he was obliged to repeat the work a week later. The non-pareil playing of the BSO in this music — so elegant the strings, so characterful the winds, so integrated the percussion —reflected the taste and informed professionalism with which Frühbeck led, betraying only a bit of “old-fashionedness” in today’s early-music informed milieu with his slowed cadences at the end of movements. However, those cadences were without exception played perfectly together, with no hint of indecision or raggedness. It was heartening to observe the smiles among the first violins as the music progressed. How could one not smile? Old-fashioned or not, give us more Haydn of this elevated sort, please!

Remarkable the ease with which Maestro Frühbeck moved from this elegant Haydn to the considerably different stylistic demands of Wagner! From the familiar rich chords and vigorous counterpoint which imbue the Meistersinger Prelude to the dramatically startling organ-enriched entrance of the chorus embodying the congregation of Nürnberg’s St. Catherine’s Church, it was immediately evident that this was to be a memorable Symphony Hall occasion. I mention Symphony Hall, because it too played a significant role in the evening’s many felicities, just as it had least week when Maestro Frühbeck de Burgos led his vivid reading of Richard Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben. While it is not new news to any concertgoers that Symphony Hall is one of the great edifices in which to hear music, the truth of this was brought home to me all the more forcefully these past two weeks. I had attended Colin Davis’s extraordinary London Symphony Orchestra concert of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis in New York’s several-times- rebuilt Avery Fisher Hall only a couple of weeks ago, and I was reminded there, when presented with its overly bright and quite unreverberant acoustic, of how fortunate we are to hear music in Symphony Hall, whose peerless acoustics enhance any performance within its walls. And then, of course, we have the Boston Symphony Orchestra, which too rarely plays Wagner these days. This is a GREAT Wagner orchestra – one of the finest exponents of that composer’s many instrumental demands, memorable whenever it plays his music. James Levine knew this; I remember his thrilling complete Dutchman several seasons ago. And so did Colin Davis; his searing Ring excerpts many years back still resound in memory.

But enough of history. May I once again urge listeners of the present to go to Symphony Hall and hear one of this season’s surely-to-be-most memorable BSO concerts? The Meistersinger excerpts went from strength to strength. Those familiar only with the famous Overture will be bowled over by the ongoing richness of invention in this remarkable opera. Those who know this work well will be gratified to hear this remarkable score played with such panache in such a noble interpretation.

I had written earlier the following in response to Tom Delbanco’s BMInt review of Frühbeck’s Schumann/Strauss concert last week:

“…Last night RFdeB and the BSO outdid themselves. The brass, and especially the orchestra’s immensely gifted concertmaster Malcolm Lowe were at they very top of their game. But, so was everyone on stage last night – the woodwinds, the percussion, and the BSO’s fabulous strings – what a night they all had. While it may be heretical to some, why doesn’t the BSO just go ahead and sign up this world-class conductor right now? The orchestra ALWAYS plays beautifully for him, his repertoire is vast and deep, his high-minded approach to music-making is unimpeachable. He is a true old-world musician steeped in authentic tradition, something that is increasingly rare. He’s not a hot-shot young man, it’s true, but he conducts with great energy and love every time he mounts the Symphony Hall podium. His rapport with soloists is a joy to observe – the give-and-take last night between him and Gidon Kremer was obvious and salutary. RFdeB’s regular visits to Boston and Tanglewood have been consistently rewarding. If he isn’t interested in being considered for Music Director, which would be understandable, I surely hope the BSO Management would offer him a Laureate position such as has been bestowed on our other great world-class visitor Bernard Haitink. Whatever happens, we should be sure that Boston remains a welcome home away from home for him.”

Enough said. Don’t miss this week’s Haydn/Wagner BSO concert!

John W. Ehrlich is music director of Spectrum Singers, which he founded 31 years ago. He has been a singer and conductor in the Boston area for more than 32 years. Spectrum Singers’s upcoming concert is on November 12.


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

  1. John Ehrlich’s review inspired a quick trip to Symphony Hall to catch this afternoon’s program, and herein now to stress that it was indeed a treat.
    What an interesting program — going from an early Haydn with essentially a Baroque orchestra and harpsichord (but no scored recorder/flute), to an end-of-the-series Haydn, close to his last symphony, with greatly increased forces, including those flutes and much percussion, and after intermission, to full-blown Wagner. I thought the wonderful, lilting interludes of winds in the second Haydn were an interesting link with their use in the same way in first part of Meistersinger.
    It seemed to me that the BSO under Fruhbeck de Burgos performed superbly, and of course the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, despite their numbers, always do justice to dynamics and phrasing.
    The musicianship and general artistry of James Morris, like Jose Van Dam, is always profoundly moving. This was a life-affirming performance.
    So, go tomorrow night, if you are free.

    Comment by Norton, Bettina A — November 4, 2011 at 6:35 pm

  2. Speaking of James Levine (as Louise Morgan might say), I was disappointed to note that he has apparently not been given the title of Music Director Emeritus. A large picture of Maestro Levine graces the coffee corridor (orchestra level left) with pictures nearby of Bernard Haitink, Conductor Emeritus, and Seiji Ozawa, Music Director Laureate — I might add that it struck me as very strange that the powers that be did not give him the usual title of Music Director Emeritus either. Unlike Haitink or Ozawa, Levine is given no title. It comes across as very petty that management won’t give him a decent honorific such as Music Director Emeritus. By all accounts he did much for the orchestra, both in musicianship and programming, even if one could have done without Carter and Babbitt; and he would have done much more had his physical condition permitted him to continue.

    Speaking of the coffee corridor, it’s disappointing that management has decided that they have to push the booze so strongly that they pushed the coffee drinkers into an inappropriate space with no tables. It’s bad enough not to have a place to put one’s cup (which I didn’t usually need) but worse still if one decides to purchase one of the sandwiches or cookies (which I occasionally do). How is one supposed to unwrap and eat a snack with one hand while holding a cup of espresso in the other? Are we riff-raff permitted to sully the sacred precincts of the alcoholic beverages?

    Speaking of sacred precincts, I second John Ehrlich’s and Toni Norton’s recommendation to get to Symphony Hall for Saturday’s concert, if possible. In retrospect, I wish I hadn’t followed along in the text during the performance Thursday evening. I should have just given my undivided attention to the glorious music, and waited for the rebroadcast to figuratively bury my nose in the program book. Sadly, I won’t be able to attend on Saturday and do it right. Well, that leaves one more seat for someone else.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — November 4, 2011 at 11:04 pm

  3. Did you notice this bit from the program booklet: “The first American performance of Haydn’s Symphony No. 100 took place…in a benefit concert for one Gottlieb Graupner…
    “for one Gottlieb Graupner” — as if he were a local notable unknown to us today. Doesn’t anyone at the BSO know who this man is? Wikipedia would get you started.

    Comment by Bill — November 5, 2011 at 7:01 pm

  4. And for more on Graupner check the recent BMInt article here

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — November 5, 2011 at 8:26 pm

  5. I noticed that, but didn’t think too badly of it; but now that you mention it, it would seem that having somehow gotten far enough to find out about the concert, they’d take one more step to check out Graupner.

    What disturbed me more was reading in Jan Swafford’s program note, “By the time Haydn produced his first symphonies starting in the late 1850s,” and “In the late 1850s, at the time of his little Symphony in D major, Haydn was working as Kapellmeister ….” How did that get past the censors?

    Comment by Joe Whipple — November 5, 2011 at 11:08 pm

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