in: Reviews

December 2, 2011

Leonore Overture 3 to the Rescue

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John Harbison with conductor Jiri Belohlavek and Sasha Cooke (Stu Rosener photo)

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.

Pianist Jonathan Biss with Jiri Belohlavek (Stu-Rosner)

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.

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.

12 Comments

  1. it is the last one before the new year. I will skip.

    hush… hmmm…

    Comment by Thorsten Zhu — December 2, 2011 at 5:44 pm

  2. All very well said. A review that is right on the money. Perhaps we should add that Belohlávek deserves some credit for taking on the Harbison, a work he is unlikely ever to lead again. Adding more negatives to this assessment of the Harbison seems unnecessary, but just for the record: the applause for the Harbison was lackluster, though we managed two respectful calls. The fine Cooke and wonderful Finley deserved better, the composer less.
     
    The BSO, on the other hand, once again failed in its program notes. We were told that the electric guitar solo in the Harbison was played by Michael Gandolfi, which was manifestly untrue. At first I thought that the BSO just reprinted the notes from the work’s premiere without such much as a read through, but it’s hard to be sure. The notes in the printed program don’t match those I read on the new (and dysfunctional) BSO website.
     
    There was a reception afterwords, but if you didn’t come planning to attend you remained uninformed because the BSO, apparently uninterested in actually boosting attendance at post-concert affairs, posted no signage and made no announcement. And hiding it off in Higginson Hall doesn’t help. More people stopped in the one time they use the orchestra-level lounge. You’d think someone would learn from that, but no. If a prospective new music director actually asks about and <i>examines</i> marketing and public relations and community outreach…..oh dear!
     

    Comment by Bill — December 2, 2011 at 7:08 pm

  3. “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.”

    Seating the violins on opposite sides of the stage is traditionally how things are done in Germany (and elsewhere). Many composers, from Haydn on, took advantage of this spatial seperation by writing for the two violin sections antiphonally. This is certainly the case with Mahler (last week) and is, to a lesser extent, the case with Beethoven (this week). This means the violas and celli need to be at the center of the stage. While it sometimes makes sense to have the celli next to the second violins on the conductor’s right, it is much more common for the second violins to be playing with the violas. As for the basses, it is conventional for them to be located behind the celli. This comes directly from the tradition of the Baroque continuo group, as does the almost constant doubling of celli and basses in much of Classical and early Romantic music.

    As for the error in the program notes listing Michael Gandolfi as the guitarist – Mr. Gandolfi is sick this week and was forced to withdraw after the programs had gone to the printer. The BSO’s publications department was not at fault in this case.

    Comment by NL — December 2, 2011 at 7:44 pm

  4. Bill,

    How could one have come to the concert planning to attend the reception? I mean, when did they give the notice? I don’t recall seeing anything about it, and I’ve checked my e-mails, and there’s nothing there. 

    Comment by Joe Whipple — December 2, 2011 at 9:02 pm

  5. Shouldn’t you be directing your query to the BSO? The lack of info in the emails is just another symptom of the problem. The program of post-concert receptions is called “Symphony +”.
     
    See: http://www.bso.org/brands/bso/plan-your-visit/explore-the-music/symphonyplus.aspx
     
    There was a very belated tweet on the day of the concert (I can’t be certain of the time it was sent but it links to an image posted at 7:58 PM) that said in full:
     
        Remember… http://pic.twitter.com/c4giO1kK 
     

    Comment by Bill — December 2, 2011 at 11:41 pm

  6. So the Gandolfi issue is: his participation was important enough to mention in the program but not important enough to correct.

    Comment by Bill — December 2, 2011 at 11:45 pm

  7. The guitarist was contacted just last Monday, and after hearing the rehearsals on Wednesday and Thursday, as well as the performance on Friday, he
    is doing a sensational job. His name is Oren Fader, and I understand he’s based in New York. He will be credited on tonight’s broadcast, and the resulting
    encore and online versions.

    Comment by Brian Bell — December 3, 2011 at 6:50 am

  8. The reception was prominently noted, well in advance, on the large outdoor poster for the concert, on the Mass. Ave. side of Symphony Hall.  I guess the BSO expects one to come down to the hall personally to read the outdoor postings in order to be apprised of receptions.  Silly in the extreme.

    Comment by Alan Levitan — December 3, 2011 at 9:28 am

  9. I would like to note that today during the Leonore Overture BSO did show quite decent Beethoven Sound. They do not do it frequently but in my view they did it today. I remember Levine during his take on Beethoven with BSO was not able to make BSO to do the “Beethoven Sound” trick.  Mr. Belohlávek looks like pulled it off, good for Belohlávek and good for BSO. Not it was not the greatest Leonore I heard  but it was almost proper Beethoven Sound in…. Boston.

    Comment by Romy the Cat — December 3, 2011 at 10:28 pm

  10. After hearing the Harbison 5th three times — Thursday at Symphony Hall, plus the Saturday broadcast and Sunday rebroadcast — in addition to being at the premiere three years ago, I am coming to the opinion that it is a wonderful series of “accompagnato” recitatives, with the final movement qualifying as a duet. The retelling of the Orpheus legend works very well, especially with a baritone who enunciates as clearly as Gerald Finley. The first two movements were riveting and the last two held my attention as well, even though the words were harder to follow in the duet.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — December 4, 2011 at 7:50 pm

  11. Coincidentally, I observed a Beethoven PC No.4 concert in London. Uchida was the soloist and Colin Davis led the LSO, the rest of the programme being Haydn 98th and Nielsen 2nd.

    Feeling bad about Uchida’s performance, I was dismayed to see many positive reviews, such as
    http://www.musicalcriticism.com/concerts/barbican-lso-uchida-beethoven-4-1211.shtml

    well, it is pretty much the same here…

    But I am more interested in seeing how Bliss was received.

    Comment by Thorsten Zhu — December 13, 2011 at 3:54 pm

  12. Thorsten Zhu, as for how Jonathan Biss’s performance was received (apart from Vance Koven’s review above), Jeremy Eichler wrote simply in the Globe, “After intermission, it was pianist Jonathan Biss on hand as soloist in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4, displaying a light touch and a natural feel for this concerto’s lyrical imperative. The orchestral sound under Belohlavek occasionally lacked definition, and the account of Beethoven’s “Leonore’’ Overture No. 3, while not without moments of high virtuosity, also had passages imprecisely balanced or stripped of tension and mystery.” Of course the audience applauded warmly.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — December 13, 2011 at 9:07 pm

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