Last night, the Boston Philharmonic presented their third concert of the season, “Breaking Free of Chains”: Lutoslawski’s Concerto for Cello and Orchestra (1971), with Alexander Baillie as solo cellist, and Richard Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben. A large audience substantially filled Sanders Theatre for this “Discovery Concert” combining a lecture with the concert and serving to introduce the works on the program to the audience. There was a change of program announced on the Boston Philharmonic’s website the day before the concert: it did not perform Beethoven’s Leonore Overture no. 3, so the audience would have more time to discover the Lutoslawski concerto. Pity: the Beethoven is a nice complement to the other two works.
With audience and orchestra seated, conductor Benjamin Zander took the stage to talk about Lutoslawski. This marked Zander’s first podium appearance since last month’s dismissal from New England Conservastory and Walnut Hill School for the Arts and the ensuing wrangling (so far) in the court of public opinion. The latest volley, a lengthy and tightly argued appeal for his reinstatement by Neil Rudenstine and Michael Zander (first posted here) had arrived just two days prior. For all the recent reportage, I overheard no discussion of these matters in the hall before the concert. But how many had it in mind? When Zander took the microphone to speak about the Lutoslawski, he began, “I have a confession.” I was not the only one to find this opening statement coy, the ensuing pause pregnant, before he continued, “At first I did not like the Lutoslawski.” Like all good impresarios, Zander knows his audience and has the knack for commanding attention. Coupled with his charisma and infectious love of the music (which can be seen in action in this TED video, but is best experienced live), one can understand the strong reactions he inspires. I cannot help but recall the checkered career of Leonard Bernstein in the court of public opinion. Whatever else, Zander, like Leonard Bernstein before him, knows music and how to communicate its intricacies to an audience in an engaging way: exuding personality, without gimmicks or condescension, Zander spoke passionately about the technicalities of music in a clear and lively manner. This is real musicology for the masses, not trite analysis about “What Makes It Great.”
For 25 minutes, Zander spoke about Lutoslawski and his Concerto for Cello and Orchestra. Zander understands the work to be in three movements, even as the concerto is played continuously: Introduction and Four Episodes; Cantilena; and Finale. (In preparation for this concert, I had listened to the Lutoslawski concerto and read about both composer and work. Others describe this piece as having four movements, with the opening Introduction — some five minutes in length, for solo cello alone — as a separate movement.) Save the introductory solo cello statement, Zander said, each movement begins with a solo cello pizzicato and ends in a dissonant blast from the brass, with the audience response composed into the music. The concerto begins in uncertainty, followed by a tense, fraught middle section, and finally reaching a harrowing climax. Lutoslawski uses “controlled aleatoric” technique, which is to say notes played at varied and variable rhythms determined by individual players within precisely delineated sections of music and at precisely marked dynamic levels, as well as quarter tones (characterized as “a very special oozing sound”) and polytonality. The orchestra demonstrated the quarter-tone passage and also broke apart one of the blaring cluster chords, better to show the lack of central tonic dominating the harmony there — and throughout the concerto, from repeated D in the Introduction to pedal E and melodic resolution on C in the Cantilena, then through to the Finale’s conclusion on a repeated high A. Mstislav Rostropovich, for whom this concerto was written, described it as an unequal struggle between the individual and the collective; Zander described it as a quintessential conflict between soloist and orchestra (as in any concerto), except here the soloist’s attempts at dialogue and engagement are rebuffed.
The lecture gave a good introduction to Alexander Baillie’s rendition of Lutoslawski’s concerto, but other interpretations of the music are possible, including a staged conflict within the solo cello line, more dialogic Four Episodes, and a greater emphasis on the dolorous parts of the Finale. Zander had characterized the solo cello line as one undivided voice, rather than as a voice questioning or in conflict with itself. He also described the composition as including the audience reaction. These two points were the least obvious to me in the music as performed; I concede interpretative difference on whether the solo cello line is a unified or a split voice. As for the inclusion of audience reactions, I wonder if Zander was not overly influenced by the programmed pairing with Richard Strauss, Ein Heldenleben, with its musical theme of the “critics”?
That said, Zander, Baillie, and the Boston Philharmonic gave a very persuasive reading of Lutoslawski’s Concerto for Cello and Orchestra. The work opens with 15 to 20 repeated Ds on solo cello, one second apart, marked “indifferente” in the score. Baillie took the stage, and before the applause died down he had begun, truly indifferent to audience or orchestra alike. Many, I think, mistook such an in medias res opening of the concerto for the soloist tuning. In gesture and body language as well as musical expression, Baillie conveyed the theme of indifference and also the conflict with the orchestra by meeting brass blasts with steady-on repeated notes. A more traditionally harmonized melody in the Cantilena enrobed in warm string playing could not hold, and the chaos, albeit controlled, returned. Was this conflict? It felt more like a dreamscape, enjoyed while it lasted but enjoyed precisely because one knew it would not last.
The Finale included dance rhythms and passages recalling the earlier, folk-inflected, phase of the composer’s career and his collaborations with Andrzej Panufnik in wartime Warsaw’s cafés. Throughout, the microscopic examination of note and tone, combined with magisterial use of tonal color by both Baillie and the orchestra, served to stretch time and make the whole seem longer than the run-time of approximately 23 minutes.
Following intermission, Zander returned to the stage to introduce Richard Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben. This tone-poem, one of the composer’s four major essays in that genre, narrates either “A Hero’s Life” or “A Heroic Life” (the German genitive parses both ways), here elevated to the hero cult surrounding Napoleon Bonaparte some decades earlier. As Zander remarked, Strauss stopped just short of quoting Beethoven’s “Eroica” symphony, but the comparison nonetheless is clear, beginning with the use of the “noble” key of E-flat Major. As demonstrated, at rehearsal mark 87 Strauss creates a tissue of citations from his own musical compositions, some 13 in all, overlaid or visited in rapid succession; these denote the “Hero’s Works of Peace.” The adversaries are music “critics”: chattering flute and oboe, “smug, pompous, pot-bellied” tubas in parallel fifths, violating all established rules of voice leading and part harmonization. (For the record, this music critic is hardly smug, rarely pompous, and decidedly not pot-bellied.) The loving theme on solo violin, linked with the composer’s wife Pauline de Ahna Strauss, expresses the “Hero’s Companion,” yet is a variation on the composer’s angry outburst heard previously. The English horn, admirably handled by Jennifer Berg in this performance, sounds a lovely pastoral theme. A wealth of emotions is contained in this work, which Zander aptly summarized: “Richard Strauss’s life gains universalizing stature through the transformative power of music.”
After the talk, the music: Boston Philharmonic and Zander delivered an exhilarating 47 minutes of Ein Heldenleben. The work is heroically difficult, from an opening theme spanning three octaves to issues of balance and coherence across such a sprawling opus. Above the full orchestral forces there floats, soars, declaims, the solo violin – here entrusted to the sure hands of concertmistress Joanna Kurkowicz. This was a wonderfully incisive reading of Strauss’s tone poem with the full commitment and conviction of each musician on the stage. The heroes of this life were the musicians just as much as the composer.
At 10 pm, after a lengthy and emotion-laden musical journey, we exited the hall to find Benjamin Zander shaking hands and sharing comments with the audience.
Since this evening combined music and words, I want to say a few words about the program notes. The program included a lengthy note about Lutoslawski and his cello concerto by the late Michael Steinberg. It is full of detail about composer and œuvre, including a long excursus on aleatoric music with a substantial quote from Lutoslawski himself on his use of the technique, in an English translation from a Swedish text which “presumably goes back to a Polish original.” Steinberg found in this quote that “at some time in these international travels the syntax became unraveled.” I had no problems with the passage, which reads like much academic prose, so perhaps Steinberg’s efforts might not be better served by editing that footnote. David St. George supplied the note for Ein Heldenleben and demonstrated, perhaps inadvertently, the difficulties of autobiographical readings of music: even as the Hero is linked to Richard Strauss but is not Richard Strauss (perhaps the Hero is Strauss as he wished he were?), the Hero’s Companion is less ambiguously tied to Pauline Strauss. “Feminine psychology lies at the heart of most of [Strauss’s] later operatic works,” St. George writes, yet Pauline’s “unpredictable, capricious orneriness and violent, swift mood swings alienated her from virtually everyone” yet “Strauss . . . seemed unable to live without her – their fifty-year marriage remains to this day one of the darker mysteries in the history of Art.” This is hardly a compelling, let alone heroic, portrait. I would assert that the Hero’s Companion is as distant from the historical Pauline Strauss as the composer is from the Hero in Ein Heldenleben. Surely Strauss’s command of feminine psychology extended to his own wife and he was smarter than to paint such an unflattering portrait.
The concert will be reprised on Saturday, February 25 at 8 pm in Jordan Hall and Sunday, February 26 at 3 pm, again in Sanders Theatre – both times presumably without Beethoven on the program.