in: Reviews

May 4, 2012

Stravinsky Shines in BSO Season Finale


Jessica Rivera, Meredith Arwady, Roberto Sacca and Gunther Groissbock with TFC (Stu-Rosner photo)

Beethoven’s immortal ninth symphony runs in the blood of every symphony orchestra, and Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalmscomes from the heart of the BSO’s repertoire, as a work commissioned by the organization for its 50th anniversary. On Thursday, May 3, the BSO offered its season finale in a performance of both. The ensemble was led by the venerable maestro, Bernard Haitink and was joined by the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, soprano Jessica Rivera, contralto Meredith Arwady, tenor Roberto Saccà, and bass Günther Groissböck.

The Stravinsky was the program’s greater artistic success, as the group performed the work with the cold, mechanical style of which the composer often spoke, a style that is almost never heard in performance (especially among symphonic orchestras that specialize in music from the Romantic period). The iconic popularity of Beethoven’s Ninth was illustrated in the group’s seemingly effortless technical mastery and unified musical concept. The unification of concept and execution in both works was in large part thanks Haitink’s excellent direction, offering the steady hand needed to navigate the Stravinsky, as well as the wide spectrum of nuance needed to communicate Beethoven’s philosophical vision in the Ninth Symphony.

The “cold” nature of Stravinsky’s compositional vision was well served by Haitink’s mechanical approach, though the harmonic structuring of the opening movement would have been strengthened through a greater emphasis on the E-F pitch dyad. The neo-Classical character of the “upside-down fugue” of the second movement was particularly brought out by the group’s close attention to Stravinsky’s articulations. The contrasting sonar quality of the final movement was effectively announced by the chorus’s use of a “blank” vocal timbre for the opening declaration of the “alleluia.” Although the ensemble encountered a handful of technical errors (in particular, intonation issues in the soprano section), this performance should be counted as a very successful rendition of a work whose challenges range beyond technical complexities to the composer’s conception of “expressionless” music, the latter of which the group handled admirably.

After the intermission, the Beethoven. Although the first two movements featured some unfortunate moments (such as a tremendous “splat!” from the horns during the first movement, and a few bumpy entrances from the woodwinds in the opening section of the second movement), these two movements displayed an absolute consistency of concept. The third movement was the only portion of the program that I would label as disappointing: the group seemed to lack a clear conception of the movement’s overall shape, creating a mere succession of melodic episodes, while the first violins’ counter-melodic annotations consistently overshadowed the melody in the other voices. These issues induced disengagement among many members of the audience, whose focus also seemed to drift away during this movement.

The memory of this musical lull melted away, however, as the orchestra began the finale. The dialogue between the motivic material of the earlier movements and the instrumental recitative in the lower strings was very effective and well coordinated, followed by a beautiful rendition of the famous “Ode to joy” in the strings. Bass soloist Günther Groissböck’s intonation of the Schiller text was quite rousing, though in general the quartet was disappointing as an ensemble, with poor balance often leaving the alto soloist inaudible. The chorus navigated the more perilous moments with impressive control and accuracy, using timbres outside of the elegant style employed in nearly all music from the 18th and 19th centuries. Haitink’s direction, the chorus’s enthusiasm, and the orchestra’s professionalism resulted in an exhilarating culmination to the work, as well as the BSO’s 2011-2012 concert season.

Joel Schwindt is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in musicology at Brandeis University. In addition to performances as a vocalist and conductor, his writings have been published by the Baerenreiter-Verlag publishing house and the Choral Journal.


  1. *Friday evening’s concert was a fitting conclusion to a BSO season marked by a wide range of performances led by conductors of greatly varying talents. 

    Bernard Haitink’s 3 series of concerts were among the season’s high points.

    While not technically perfect, both the Stravinsky and the Beethoven were often moving and intense.

    Haitink constantly had some fascinating insight to impart… there was always a forward momentum and a youthful vigor often missing in conductors half his age,

    The diction of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus  was often garbled during the first two movements of the Stravinsky. 

    The Beethoven 9th, despite a few technical glitches was thrilling from beginning to end… The
    adagio was heart-breakingly beautiful.  The quartet of soloists was mediocre except for Bass-Baritone, Günther Groissböck’s thrilling, powerful singing.

    The sold-out hall had more people present after intermission… Just the name Stravinsky still
    scares people away!

    I’m always sad at the end of the BSO season and count the weeks until the 2012/13 begins.

    Comment by Ed Burke — May 6, 2012 at 2:01 am

  2. My impression Thursday evening was of a performance in which all the instrumental parts were in balance, so that details which sometimes pass unnoticed were not buried by the volume of sound from other sections. Perhaps to some extent it was being in Symphony Hall that enabled me to heat is all more clearly, but I also credit Maestro for maintaining the balance. Even what the program note refers to as the “dissonant shriek that Richard Wagner called the ‘terror fanfare,'” at the beginning of the fourth movement of the Beethoven seemed a bit restrained under Maestro Haitink’s baton.
    The soloists were miked for recording, so radio and webstream listeners will have to take our word for it that in the hall, only Günther Groissböck was powerful enough.
    Jason Snider nailed his solo (fourth horn part) in the third movement. My brother tells me that sometimes conductors give the solo to the principal horn, but there was no reason to here.
    This was my second hearing of the Symphony of Psalms, so I’m not familiar with it, but I found it fascinating to listen to.
    So all in all, it was a very good evening in Symphony Hall. I’m glad I was there.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — May 6, 2012 at 9:00 pm

  3. *Naturally there are mikes for the orchestra, chorus and soloists otherwise there would be no recording of any kind.  However, I do wish that during commentary it could be explained especially to younger audiences that the mikes are just used for this purpose. During intermissions or after
    the concert I often hear high school or college students talking about the excellent amplification
    system.  It is obvious that this is their first experience with natural sound.  The ugly black speakers
    and the mikes give the understandable impression that the music is canned.

    Comment by Ed Burke — May 6, 2012 at 11:47 pm

  4. I was listening over WCRB on Saturday, live, primary to Beethoven. I was not thrilled with the symphony. The whole first movement was very liturgics, apathetic and non-expressive, the banal phasing and the Prozac-inspired conducting.  The orchestra did play very well; even though sometimes horn did something confusing.   The whole thing comes together to me in the 3/5 of last movement when BSO and chorus got off the leash and did show of some very juicy play.

    What I wonder… we, the BMI posters/readers, would it be fun to have one large listening party all together in the end of some kind of season? Lee would by drinks…

    Comment by Romy The Cat — May 7, 2012 at 9:47 pm

  5. The 1st movement was plain, but not bad. There are many plain Haintink recordings.
    2nd was not satisfying. I don’t remember where I was not happy about.
    3rd was moving. It was Beethoven’s music anyway.
    the chorus’s performance was not so great. Did they know what they were singing? ‘A loving father …’ soloists may not be world class.

    Romy, will those boring internet fools follow you to the party? I think I might not receive much love because of my sarcastic comments.

    Comment by Thorsten Zhu — May 8, 2012 at 1:05 pm

  6. Romy makes a good suggestion…who’s buying?

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — May 8, 2012 at 2:19 pm

  7. Lee, I think according to Romy’s suggestion, you’re buying.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — May 8, 2012 at 4:32 pm

  8. Instead of drink, I think a better treat is to buy tix of Goetterdaemmerung for us.

    Das Rheingold was sold out when I was at fenway cinema yesterday. How could that happen? It is just a DVD replay of sth happened 2 yrs ago.

    Comment by Thorsten Zhu — May 10, 2012 at 10:59 am

  9. *Das Rheingold is part of the Met’s new Ring 2011-12 season and for the most part it rec’v
    excellent reviews mainly because of the excellent cast and superb conducting of Fabio Luisi.
    Per usual, Mr. Zhu, you’ve messed up re: the facts!  The performance at the Fenway cinema was a
    repeat of the original HD performance and not just a DVD replay.  All of the Met HD performances are repeated at least once during the original season.  Yes, on occasion there have been repeats
    from several seasons ago for example the Daughter of the Regiment with Dessay + Florez.

    Comment by Ed Burke — May 11, 2012 at 11:53 pm

  10. Mr. Burke: Thorten Zhu is correct that the Met HD Ring operas are repeats of the original theatre-casts. When Fabio Luisi took over the conducting duties for Siegfried and Die Götterdämmerung, the Met announced that the HD Ring would have two conductors, regardless of who led the “cycle” performances in the opera house this spring. None of the Ring operas have been repeated in movie theatres until now, and all of the HD showings of the Ring operas this spring are repeats. Unless you go to the Metropolitan Opera House, you’re not getting to see Fabio Luisi conduct Das Rheingold or Die Walküre. I don’t know what you meant by “The performance at the Fenway cinema was a repeat of the original HD performance and not just a DVD replay,” because you otherwise seem to be asserting that it was a new HD relay of a performance from the current run under Fabio Luisi—and that just isn’t so.

    Comment by Stephen Owades — May 12, 2012 at 12:10 am

  11. *Sorry Stephen and Thorsten…, I guess this time I’m the one who messed up re: the facts!

    Comment by Ed Burke — May 12, 2012 at 1:32 am

  12. There was one thing I messed up. I called it DVD replay, which was not techinally right. But people who pay attention to this kind of thing know its selling point —- HD. Ok, it should be something like HD-DVD/BD replay.

    I simply put it that way to show me being unhappy.

    Comment by Thorsten Zhu — May 12, 2012 at 8:52 pm

  13. I went to the “Rheingold” replay Friday night the 11th at the Shalin Liu Performance Center in Rockport.  I went to the original live Saturday matinee over a year ago unaware at that time of the superior sound offered in Rockport.  In the past, I thought that I would have to accept mediocre sound quality in the chain theaters that offer The Met in HD.  I also saw “Die Walkuere” at a chain theater.  So in the next week, I’ll  be attending  the last three Ring operas there, seeing them consecutively in a bit over week the way Wagner intended. The very BEST sound quality (not overpowering) is row E (the Ring opens on the note ‘E’ BTW) in the balcony for just $15.  I’m heartened to know that other theaters sold out last week, but there were seats aplenty in Rockport.  So if that venue is not excessively distant for you, I’d suggest driving there.  NOTE” there’s a big sign as you enter central Rockport that the meters are in use 7 days a week even during the off-season.  I’m willing to walk a mile for Wagner, so it doesn’t matter to me, but you’ve been warned.

    Comment by Laurence Glavin — May 13, 2012 at 3:03 pm

  14. Actually,  Das Rheingold opens with an E flat….but I’ve never sat in that row.

    Comment by Brian Bell — May 13, 2012 at 9:49 pm

  15. A piece of advice traditionally given to alto soloists taking on the Ninth’s finale: Always wear a bright dress.

    Comment by Richard Buell — May 15, 2012 at 4:07 pm

  16. Not to affront Beethoven by mentioning other’s name under Nr.9’s post. But the great genius Wagner certainly has his special place close to Beethoven.

    I went to Burlington and watched Siegfried.

    Luisi did not impress me at all. At the beginning of the first act, his accompanying did not cover Siegfried’s weakness but expose that.  Bryn Terfel was the only highlight. I did not watch the 3rd act. So I missed wanderer’s most emotional section. and I did not get the chance to see Voigt’s Bruennhilde. Morris’ Siegfried is not very likable. I did not want to ruin my imagination of the splendid duet.

    The sound was awful and the sound editing was even worse. Met opera orchestra’s playing did not sound skillful and adequate.

    The worst part was the so called ‘new production’. Met sticks to traditional staging, which is good. Staging should not be too much of a distraction. However, they spent a lot of effort on the the minor stuff, but they failed to emphasize on the real drama. In the first act, there was not much staging effect for the song of Notung. In the second act, the slaying of the dragon was more than silly. Totally a waste of money! where was the artistic and music director?!

    Comment by Thorsten Zhu — May 17, 2012 at 10:56 pm

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