Two decades ago, Boston Symphony Orchestra violist Mark Ludwig founded the Terezín Music Foundation. Named after an infamous Nazi concentration camp, this nonprofit organization is dedicated, in broad terms, to celebrating the indefatigability of the human spirit, both by commissioning new music and by showcasing pieces created by Terezín composers. On Monday evening, November 14, the TMF celebrated its twentieth anniversary with a gala concert in Symphony Hall featuring the intriguing combination of music premieres and musical luminaries.
Founding Director Ludwig’s heartfelt and informative opening remarks described, in general as well as personal terms, the healing and inspirational transcendence of music. By featuring new works along with a generous helping of piano music, this concert, he explained, was crafted to evoke the spirit of Terezín. This particular camp had a high concentration of artists, whose talents were used by the Nazi propaganda machine to promote its disingenuous message.
Back-to-back premieres got the evening off to a fresh and spirited start. Never before performed on American soil, André Previn’s Sonata for Clarinet and Piano featured the BSO’s Thomas Martin on clarinet and the composer himself at the keyboard. Now in his early 80s, pianist, conductor, and wide-ranging composer Previn seemed nothing less than the embodiment of human indefatigability as he slowly approached his instrument with the help of a walker and plunged right in. The quickly shifting colors of his jaunty, syncopated, downright puckish sonata emphatically demonstrated that the creative flames within Maestro Previn still burn brightly. His tonal language was accessible without being overly straightforward: palatable, yet pleasingly piquant. Actually, the more introspective sections (tempo markings Slow and Very Slow), seemed to be shot through with dark veins of Brahmsian yearning, tenderly realized in the creamy, rounded phrases of clarinetist Martin. This reviewer is tempted to add that the piano rendition seemed perhaps a tad overly subdued at times, but, given that the composer was also the performer, it really makes no sense to second-guess! Both instrumentalists scampered through the final movement (marked Fast, of course) with a free and unfettered spirit that conjured images of birds in flight.
This new piece was followed by an even newer one: another work by Previn, another premiere, this time the first performance on the planet of his Quintet for Clarinet and String Quartet, performed by clarinetist Martin and the Hawthorne String Quartet, a top-drawer chamber group consisting of BSO members Ronan Lefkowitz and Si-Jing Huang, violins; Mark Ludwig, viola; and Sato Knudsen, cello. Maestro Previn’s three-movement creation was essentially light-dark-light: an animated, highly energized, somewhat choppy first movement was followed by a somber, subdued middle section with more flowing lines and occasional whiffs of Copland; the piece concluded with a blinding burst of kineticism. The autumnal tones of the second movement evoked monochromatic images of Terezín itself, while the final section seemed to resonate with human pluck, industriousness, and buoyancy. The playing was precisely synchronized and burnished, with the musicians sounding far more familiar with the music than they possibly could have been.
Back in more familiar territory, pianist Garrick Ohlsson, a giant of a figure both musically and physically, took command of the stage and regaled us with a shower of notes from the pen and quill of Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953) and Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849). Prokofiev’s Four Pieces, Op. 4 are succinct, colorful works, whose highly evocative natures make their section titles (“Reminiscence,” “Elan,” “Despair,” “Diabolic Suggestion”) almost redundant. In Ohlsson’s capable paws, the sepia tones of Reminiscence were carefully rendered; the fiendishly difficult eruption of notes in “Diabolic Suggestion” (sounding very much like a Lisztian “Mephisto March”) handled with grace and subtlety. The musical term maestoso seems an apt description Ohlsson’s musical persona as he projects an aura of majestic sophistication and mesmerizing elegance while teasing out melody lines and catching each facet of the music in the brilliant light of understanding. His rendition of Chopin’s Sonata No. 3 in b minor, Op. 58 was as powerful as it was delicate, though, it must be said, fleetingly verging on overly legato. The final presto crackled with creativity and optimism, precipitating an immediate and sustained standing ovation, a fitting ending to an uplifting and life-affirming evening.