The unsettled state of artistic affairs at the Boston Symphony has mercifully not interrupted its John Harbison cycle, which proceeded this week (we caught the Saturday night performance, November 26) under the baton of its former assistant conductor and newly appointed music director of the Seattle Symphony (and of Brussels’ La Monnaie opera company), Ludovic Morlot. M. Morlot’s program, a notably long and ambitious one technically, also included Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé, Suite No. 2 and, just for a lagniappe, Mahler’s Symphony No. 1.
It’s not unusual any more to see conductors play around with the placement of performers — almost always a matter of where the strings sit, as nobody seems to experiment with, say, the bassoons or horns. Morlot had the second violins and cellos change places from the standard seating pattern — not an uncommon move any more — but then also arranged the contrabasses to his left and the harps on the right. Your guess is as good as ours whether this makes any difference in balance or acoustics in the repertoire he was doing; it just bunches the high and low strings on the same side. Note to those who listen to the radio broadcasts: there’s nothing wrong with your radio, Morlot’s just messing with your head.
John Harbison’s Symphony No. 4, written in fact for the Seattle Symphony in 2003, is a five-movement work that, according to the composer’s note, began as a digging-out exercise (one might almost characterize it as an exorcism) from the musical world of The Great Gatsby, his semi-successful opera for the Met. Thus, the first movement, “Fanfare,” picks up the Jazz Age feel of Gatsby in a rhythmically driven figure that might have been the opening of Gershwin’s unwritten symphony, if that had come after Porgy and Bess. The brassy bits alternate with and are sometimes overwhelmed by string passagework that is engagingly developed until it just stops mid-air. This kind of non-ending becomes a feature of most of the movements. The Intermezzo that follows has a deliberately hard time getting off the ground, with assertive statements answered and subverted by gamelan-like noises. Harbison is a brilliant orchestrator, who has invested even his most tentative ideas in multicolored robes that dazzle. Brilliant orchestration, we should add, was a kind of linking theme for the entire evening’s performances.
Like Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, Harbison’s Fourth puts the Scherzo at the center and makes it the most elaborately constructed and longest movement. It’s not especially jolly, for reasons soon to be mentioned, but it maintains a fairly jazzy feel within an unusually strong (for Harbison) triple meter. The “trio” explores some of the deepest sonorities in the orchestra, contrasting sharp attacks in winds and brass with gentler string passages. Again, the conclusion leaves one suspended. The explanation for all this tentativeness may be the fourth movement, styled “Threnody.” One gathers from the composer’s note that the subject here is not a mortality, but mortality itself, a sharp reminder of which entered Harbison’s life while he was writing this work and resulted in this movement’s completion at lightning speed. It has an almost 19th-century feel to it, rather Tchaikovskian in its way, and powerfully emotive. Morlot responded in kind and lavished exquisite attentions on every swell and throb. As much under this movement’s shadow as the Scherzo was the Finale, which mustered a number of build-ups that never quite coalesce into that sum-it-all-up feeling. Attempts to re-conjure the bright spots of earlier movements seem always doomed, and while the work does end with an emphatic climax, it was an obviously equivocal one.
We hope Harbison, who was there to receive his just accolades, was pleased with the performance; we thought it a masterful one that carried a full measure of conviction. Morlot is a highly energetic performer who errs, if at all, on the side of over-involvement. He also has a rather strange approach to a beat, especially in slow passages, where his stick anticipates it many times before finally committing. We wonder how the players acclimate to that, but there was certainly no evidence of insecurity in the ensemble.
The first half closed with Daphnis et Chloé, Suite no. 2 of Ravel, a work the BSO has played so many times, under so many conductors, that they can probably do it in their sleep, notwithstanding its fearsome technical demands (under every long line there are a dozen players frantically keeping up with irregular rapid subdivisions of the beat). There was nobody, onstage or off, though, sleeping through this performance, which was a virtuoso turn for the conductor and all the players. Flutist Elizabeth Rowe was credited as soloist, and her passages were magical indeed; but we’ll also give a shout-out to John Ferrillo, the oboist, whose own solos complemented Rowe’s and were every bit as lovely, if not nearly as extensive. Morlot shone as well, bringing out all Ravel’s brilliant colors with clarity and precision.
One would imagine that after such workouts as these, the orchestra would kick back with something relatively straightforward, but no! By golly, we were going to get a Mahler symphony on top of all that. Granted, the Symphony No. 1 in D Major is Mahler’s shortest, but that’s not saying much, and in terms of affect, despite its formal clarity it probably ranges wider than most of the other eight-and-a-half.
A brief digression: a performance of Mahler 1 was one of the first things we ever reviewed, way back in college, as the student orchestra struggled gamely with music that was so far beyond its technical capacity so that the only decent thing to write about it was compliments on the effort. But just as the young Mahler was merciless in his demands on players, we were equally and cruelly so. Nostra culpa! If anyone reading this now was performing so long ago and far away, we issue our unqualified apology.
No apologies, though, were needed for the BSO’s rendition Saturday. Morlot kept his tempi generally on the relaxed side (he wasn’t watching the clock) and let the players luxuriate in the great soft and loud waves of passionate sound that Mahler unleashed. The first movement introduction shimmered with expectation, punctuated with crisp pizzicato and the perfectly precise (though slightly too loud) flourishes of the offstage trumpets. The body of the first movement was mostly as relaxed and genial in its nature-worship as, well, a walk in the park. The Scherzo, the only movement to gain Brahms’s gruff approbation when Mahler showed him the score, was bouncy in the outer sections and über-gemütlich in the trio, and Morlot milked it for all the gentle satire it embodied. The more pointed satire of the funeral march (in the US we think of the tune as “Frère Jacques,” but in German-speaking countries it is “Bruder Martin,” a Counter-Reformation swipe at Martin Luther, whose intent would have been well understood in Austria) was deliciously brought out. Edwin Barker’s opening contrabass solo was, as one would expect, polished but not stagey. The brass and winds were just a bit overbearing at the first entry of the countersubject, but otherwise all the sonorities played nicely together, whether the prevailing mood was arch or childlike. The fadeout was thrilling, so much the better to make the audience jump at the fierce opening of the Finale, with its snarling sforzandi. This movement, progressing from anguished F minor to glowingly beatific D major, covers more ground than most Mahler movements, and Morlot conducted the somewhat wild ride with clarity and architectural precision. Some conductors take the final two notes, the octave drop on D, as goofy satire, but Morlot accepted them at face value, which seems more emotionally fitting.
Overall, we were more satisfied with this evening at Symphony than we have been in several recent outings. Morlot worked hard, but everyone worked just as hard with him. It was really the sort of first-rate musical experience that BSO audiences should be entitled to expect every week.