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Everyone/Thing Worked with Morlot at BSO


Ludovic Morlot conducts the BSO (Stu Rosner photo)

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.

Vance R. Koven studied music at Queens College and New England Conservatory, and law at Harvard. A composer and practicing attorney, he was for many years the chairman of Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble.


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

  1. As you probably know, Vance, it’s ‘Ferrillo’…

    Otherwise, I think this is a very perceptive review, perhaps because I agree with almost every point. It was the most consistently rewarding evening I’ve had at Symphony Hall this season. In particular, the familiar Ravel was more magical and transparent than I’ve ever heard the orchestra play it before, and that’s saying alot. 

    So far, we’ve heard Ludovic Morlot and the BSO play together at quite a distinguished level in Mozart, Berlioz, Mahler, Ravel, Bartok, Carter, and Harbison.  Just sayin’…

    Comment by nimitta — November 28, 2011 at 3:57 pm

  2. Thanks for the catch- John Ferillo it is.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — November 28, 2011 at 6:38 pm

  3. I couldn’t agree more. the Friday afternoon concert was superb and I have not heard such an enthusiastic audience in a long time. 

    Roy Hammer 

    Comment by roy hammer — November 28, 2011 at 8:49 pm

  4. I read that there was a problem selling tickets for this concert. (The hall was near capacity for all three concerts with Chung.) Was there a decent audience size? Some conductors can virtually guarantee a sell-out.

    Comment by Dan Lobb — November 29, 2011 at 2:59 am

  5. The seating arrangement employed in Ludovic Morlot’s BSO concerts is the one used by James Levine during his years as Music Director here (and at the Met as well). Many of this season’s guest conductors have reverted to a more “standard” layout, but Mr. Morlot was following his mentor’s lead. It’s not a new plan, or a new sound, for the BSO.

    Comment by Stephen Owades — November 29, 2011 at 10:13 am

  6. For the concerts I attended (Thursday and Tuesday, for the first, and Friday only, due to prior obligations, (sob) for the second), attendance was  disappointing. Side balconies were close to empty, and blocks of seats on the floor were, also. As these seats are usually occupied, it seemed to indicate that in addition to individuals, small groups — say, two couples? — stayed away. 
    Many years ago, a friend who worked with me at the Essex Institute reported that once, at a Friday morning meeting of her Salem Sewing Circle, she asked an aged Salem lady what she was going to do that afternoon.
    “Well,” the answer was, “I’ve been going to Symphony for 50 years now, and it’s getting so I don’t mind it a BIT!”

    Comment by Norton, Bettina A — November 29, 2011 at 10:34 am

  7. *** Stephen Owades: It’s not a new plan, or a new sound, for the BSO.

    I feel it was a big stretch. “New Sound for BSO”? Hmmmm, I do not think so. BSO did slightly alter Sound in 2001-2003 but and it is controversial if they still maintain that alteration. Stephen, what do you find was “the new Sound” for BSO under Mr. Morlot? I generally like him, even though I do not care too much about his Mahler 1 last weekend. Still, I do NOT feel that he brought any new Sound.

    Comment by Romy The Cat — November 29, 2011 at 12:05 pm

  8. I’ve now heard the Harbison Fourth Symphony four times: in Symphony Hall last Friday, broadcast Saturday evening, rebroadcast Sunday afternoon, and now, with Mr. Koven’s review as well as the program booklet in front of me. Although both Mr. Harbison and Mr. Koven indicate that the Threnody affects the rest of the symphony — and I’ve got to take the composer’s word for it — I would not have realized it if I had not been told. So far, for me, each movement is a gem in its own right. I loved it on Friday afternoon, and with each hearing, the musicality of the piece has become clearer as I observe more lyricism and more development along with the rhythms which were inescapable on first hearing. The review has definitely been helpful.

    If anyone is free this evening, go to Symphony Hall and hear this symphony. If you’re busy and can’t stay for the rest, or if you want to let it rest undisturbed in your mind for a while, it’s okay to leave before the Ravel. As Hans Knappertsbusch is reported to have said to an orchestra about a Beethoven symphony they were supposed to rehearse, “Gentlemen, we all know this,” so there was no need to spend any time on it. (I did go back after the intermission . The Mahler was fun.) But go for the Harbison; and if you can’t get there (or even if you can) listen to the WGBH/WCRB/Classical New England webstream on demand. This piece belongs in the regular repertory of the orchestra IMO.

    BTW, the audience on Friday also loved the Mahler and gave a loud standing ovation which lasted for only two “curtain calls.” You would think an audience that enthusiastic would bring the conductor back at least four times — but no.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — November 29, 2011 at 1:25 pm

  9. I have similar feeling about the Harbison symphony. When I heard it on Saturday I was pleased with “sounds” but I did not particular value of the complete experience. Need to say that Harbison symphonies are not exactly my cap of tea… Then it happens that I played the Saturday broadcast two more times (do not ask why) and I did warm up to the Harbison 4. It is still a bit too modern to me but it has some elegance, some reasoning and sometimes even …melody. A regular repertory? Yes, in the first part of concerns, right after some kind of frumpy overture…

    Comment by Romy The Cat — November 29, 2011 at 2:14 pm

  10. There were almost 700 seats available for Tuesday evening’s concert on Tuesday morning.
    Again the BSO fails to use its twitter account to announce ticket availability, though they did tweet in advance to promote the Borromeo’s free concert Monday night and about the Pops in Iowa City and random bits of news unrelated to the BSO.

    Comment by Bill — November 29, 2011 at 6:08 pm

  11. Hate to be a stickler, Lee…but it’s Ferrillo.

    Comment by nimitta — November 29, 2011 at 11:22 pm

  12. I wish I could add my comments earlier. Anyway, first half
    In last year’s end of season survey, I complained that there were too many Harbisons. They would not listen, apparently. Being late on Friday afternoon, I practically protested against Harbison being on the program. Then, I felt lucky that I was not there for the entire symphony.
    I laughed when I read ‘Morlot shone as well, bringing out all Ravel’s brilliant colors with clarity and precision.’ I probably have more to say than the reviewer did. My impression was that the main theme entries of the strings (bass->cello->viola->2nd violin) were blurred, without love and passion (maybe I should find other words to avoid abuse). The cello and violin were introduced abruptly. Accompanying that was the ‘bird’ singing. The first a few notes of that were exceptionally ugly. The rest was the first ‘movement’ was fine. But I did not hear any color being brought out in an extraordinary way. I always think that once the piece gets modern, it gets easier for the conductor. Later part of the suite benefited from that. But I still want to complain that the percussions were heavier than what I’d like. Perhaps that is my own problem.

    More on Mahler later, if I have time.

    Comment by Ning Zhu — November 29, 2011 at 11:28 pm

  13. Nimitta- I did make the correction correctly in the article- though not in my comment. Thanks for holding us to the highest standards.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — November 29, 2011 at 11:46 pm

  14. *** Stephen Owades: It’s not a new plan, or a new sound, for the BSO.

    Stephen, sorry, I misread your comment in my reply above. For some reasons as I read it I interpreted as “not a new plan but new sound for BSO”.  Go figured what is going on in my head!  Perhaps it was an early stage of Alzheimer’s or a late stage of an idiocy …

    Comment by Romy The Cat — November 30, 2011 at 1:26 pm

  15. 2nd half.

    To describe my feeling after the concert, I put it this way: the Friday concert gave me a good reason that I should continue to attend live concerts. I was very satisfied with the sound. I don’t know much about the ‘new’ sound, but it was not the first Mahler concert I obversed in Boston. For seating or other reasons, the previous Mahler experiences (2,7,9) did not leave me impressions of huge dynamics (7 was actually very nice). Maybe the credit belongs to Morlot, even though I was somewhat suspicious, just several minutes after Daphnis. My poor stereo system could never roar like that.

    Having been critical about Daphnis, I don’t want to reserve too much on the conductor. Musically, I give Morlot a big thumb up. I usually find myself more critical with my CDs than with live performances. But I was satisfied with the entire music flow even better with some certainty. Everything was in the right mood in each movement. The most precious thing was that the ‘line’ of the symphony was very clear in the 4th movement, when all the previous themes repeated.

    My English has obvious limitations, esp. when I find it is hard to understand QUOTE’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.‘ENDQUOTE. Again, people read too much of those words (some of them out of Mahler’s own mouth), such as satire, parody, irony… and they just use them at will, without listening to what music says. The 3rd movement is funeral (the composer said it), abstinent, bitter, religious AND jewish. Isn’t that personal enough of the composer? It is a painful parody, but it is a self parody, which reflects his unconfident vulnerable nerve (that is Mahler). Why would it have anything to do with reformation? Even if it indeed does, how could one bring out bitterness deliciously? Or it is certain poetic writing…

    Comment by Thorsten Zhu — November 30, 2011 at 5:14 pm

  16. The last two Tuesday concerts under Morlot were, by current BSO standards, well attended…the Hall was about 4/5ths full on Tuesday and 3/4ths full last week.  

    The BSO musicians are quite obviously fond of Morlot and respond well to his direction.  Tuesday audiences are notorious for their general lack of enthusiasm.  Hard to believe that after the Berlioz the polite applause ceased and Morlot was not recalled…AMAZING.  The Mahler #1 received a well deserved standing ovation. Attending both concerts, I felt the Harbison 4th was the highlight…it is a masterpiece!

    Again..  audience size has nothing to do with the greatness of a performer.  

    Comment by Ed Burke — December 1, 2011 at 11:10 am

  17. I’m not sure of the importance of audience response, but…
    Note as well that applause varies with the length of the concert, and this week’s ended well past 10 pm. And counting calls may not make sense as a measure of anything. On Tuesday the 29th, Morlot spent the first call after the Mahler asking individual players to stand, and he devoted the second to full section call-outs. There was a third as well.
    I’ve very much enjoyed Morlot’s two-week stand, the Harbison aside. The sooner we’re done with that piece of Levine’s legacy the better.

    Comment by Bill — December 1, 2011 at 11:39 am

  18. “…audience size has nothing to do with the greatness of a performer”

    Ed, how do you define “greatness”? Audience size is certainly one measure, although not the only measure, of the greatness of a conductor or soloist.
    Someone has to pay the bills, and a large audience indicates a greater financial return, both immediately in ticket sales, and later in the form of CD and DVD sales.
    I may have missed something in the laudatory reviews which some local critics have  lavished on Morlot, but which recording label does he hold a contract with?  As I have pointed out before, Chung holds a twenty year contract with Deutsche Grammaphon, which he could apply to the BSO if he is offered the directorship.  While an orchestra’s in-house recordings give a fascinating picture of a point in time, a connection with a major label brings a top-level engineering team and equipment to the fabulous Symphony Hall acoustics, plus the availability of major solo performers.  Few in-house recordings feature a prominent concerto soloist, most of whom are tied to the major recording labels.
    So there are genuine artistic reasons for looking to a prominent, popular conductor who can provide major resources to an orchestra in search of leadership.


    Comment by Dan Lobb — December 1, 2011 at 12:28 pm

  19. yes Perlman filled the symphony hall and he had a GREAT concert

    Comment by Thorsten Zhu — December 2, 2011 at 5:47 pm

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