My (or, sometimes, Oh my), what a difference a week can make. On December 1, under a new guest conductor, the Czech maestro Jirí Belohlávek, who is now the principal conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra and who will next year become music director (again) of the Czech Philharmonic, the Boston Symphony once again delved into the symphonic œuvre of John Harbison and followed up with two favorite Beethoven works.
One thing that was the same this week as last was the orchestral seating profile, which we are now ready to concede is the “new normal.” At the risk of beating a dead horse — whack! — we fail to see any benefit in an arrangement that concentrates all the principal string parts, high and low, on one side of the stage. While an acoustically well-blended space like Symphony Hall goes a long way toward mitigating the sonic imbalance this causes, 1) it doesn’t go all the way; 2) it creates visual imbalance; and 3) it distorts the aural orientation of radio and website listeners. One might counter by saying that the brass, which largely congregate to the conductor’s right, pick up the slack, but while this might be plausible in modern works like Harbison’s that have big brass parts (though, for reasons we will mention below, this was not the case this time), it’s unjustified when works from earlier times, like Beethoven’s, are involved. Perhaps our acoustically knowledgeable readers can enlighten us on what is so compelling about the current seating plan.
Harbison’s Fifth Symphony is, so far, his only vocal one. While divided into four movements, they are all attached and convey a sense of a single line of thought. This reflects the unified literary theme of the work, the Orpheus legend (which, senso largo, was also the theme of the entire concert — a brilliant bit of programming, that). The story about the symphony is that when the BSO commissioned it for its 125th anniversary in 2006, Harbison started it as a purely instrumental work evoking generally an idea of loss. James Levine suggested that Harbison incorporate vocal parts, and, as they say, “the rest, as they say, is history.” The largest chunk of the piece, forming the first two movements, is a setting for baritone (Gerald Finley) of Czeslaw Milosz’s poem, Orpheus and Eurydice, a quirky “modern-dress” telling of the failed rescue by the former of the latter from the depths of Hades. (Harbison used the English translation by Milosz and Robert Haas). The third movement sets the seldom-heard voice of Eurydice (Sasha Cooke, mezzo) in Louise Glück’s poem, Relic, while the fourth brings both voices together in Stephen Mitchell’s translation of Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus, nos. 11 and 13.
Harbison was quite up-front in his program note in wondering whether listeners could take in vocal settings like these as a true symphony. The answer, of course, as always, is “it depends.” Mahler considered Das Lied von der Erde to be a symphony, and Shostakovich and others have declared as symphonies things that could be mistaken for song cycles. The issue is always how bound musical materials are to the specific texts. Harbison’s Fifth begins with a wide-ranging, jagged figure for orchestra that coalesces into a kind of theme. This material recurs in various ways at key points throughout the four movements and returns at the end. Our trouble is that the vocal writing seldom relates to this or any other symphonically developed material that we could tell on first hearing (an important caveat) and focuses instead on the local necessities of the text. Some of the music for the voices is quite arresting — notably the set piece in the second movement in which Orpheus sings persuasively to Persephone of the joys of mortal life in the upper world. Much of it, though, owing in part to Milosz’s conversational tone and partly to whatever Harbison was getting from these texts, was blandly matter-of-fact. There are key spots, we are told, in which the tone and color of the music changes—at the break between first and second movements and for the third movement, for example — but apart from some scoring differences (e.g. the introduction of an electric guitar as an ironic stand-in for Orpheus’s nine-string lyre, the odd blast from the brass), the music seemed all rather the same, gray, medium-slow and earnest. In several places there were attempts at climaxes, such as the agonizingly slow build during Orpheus’s long walk back to the surface, but these tended to peter out. The gestures did, indeed, sometimes change: the third movement, “Relic,” is melismatic, the fourth movement featured downward scalar patterns; but on the whole, the kind of variety-within-unity (or vice versa) that keeps a multi-movement work engaging didn’t cross our ears.
The bright spots in this performance were those of the singers, especially Gerald Finley, whose direct, clear tone, dynamic modulation, and impeccable diction were stellar, and Sasha Cooke, whose diction and theatrics were not up to Finley’s but whose tone was radiant. As for the orchestra, we suspect it had a bit of trouble making sense of the piece, as the playing was often rather tentative, a far cry from the brilliance with which it conveyed Harbison’s Fourth Symphony last week.
A very different kind of sameness (anyone who wants to use that as a movie title had better credit us) afflicted the performance of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, op. 58, that followed the intermission. The soloist was Jonathan Biss, scion of a distinguished musical family (Grandma was cellist Raya Garbousova; Mom is violinist Miriam Fried) and a high-voltage virtuoso in his own right. Biss is a highly physical performer with lots of swooshing, swooning, and flourishes; his rubato is judiciously employed, and his dynamics are well modulated. He created great swelling waves of sound in his passagework in the outer movements, and especially in the first-movement cadenza. Anything amiss about this? Not at all, especially if one is expecting a performance of the Fifth Piano Concerto. A Fourth concerto played for this kind of effect is, well, played for this kind of effect, and not for what makes the Fourth unique. Frankly, at age 30, Biss is too old to be a wunderkind any longer and should take a more reflective approach to this piece. Perhaps we’re being too harsh; this kind of playing has tremendous audience appeal, and in all fairness the critically important slow movement saw Biss waxing poetic, in the musical guise of Orpheus charming the Furies (as was first suggested by Adolf Marx in 1859), although with little new to say about this amazing music.
“Little new to say” is also the stick we’ll use to belabor Belohlávek’s work with the orchestra. Tempi were moderate (a bit brisker in the finale), ensemble perfectly in order, the progression from ferocity to docility in the strings of the slow movement just what the doctor ordered. Apart from a lack of crispness in the strings’ articulation in the finale, we have, in short, nothing to complain about in the playing or conducting, but last week we got three revelatory performances, and revelatory this was not.
What was, fortunately, at a level equal to last week’s, and the antithesis of perfunctory, was the closer of the evening, Beethoven’s Leonore Overture No. 3. Forget the title “Overture,” this is a tone poem avant la lettre, one of Beethoven’s best blends of storytelling with classical form. And, in the other aspect of the Orpheus theme, it was about a rescue (a successful one this time, and of the husband by the wife — a lesson in that, perhaps?). Belohlávek was all over it. From the moment we perceived the expectant hush in the introduction, we knew that this would be a terrific reading, and so it was. The crescendo from the soft opening of the allegro was perfectly wrought; the solos of Elizabeth Rowe, flute, and Thomas Rolfs, trumpet, from offstage, were superb. We’re very grateful the concert ended this way, a successful rescue operation in yet another sense.