in: Reviews

May 20, 2012

BMOP: Apollo’s Fire, Minus Dance


Rounding out its concert season, Boston Modern Orchestra Project under the direction of Gil Rose presented a concert entitled “Apollo’s Fire” in Jordan Hall on Friday night. The four works on the concert took their inspiration from Apollo and the Muses, either explicitly or implicitly; the other link in this program – one not expressed in the program notes but one I found to be omnipresent – was the idea of dance. The evening began with a pre-concert talk presented by The Score Board, largely in conversation with Lewis Spratlan. The concert included a full two hours of music, plus intermission.

The concert opened with Nikos Skalkottas, Five Greek Dances (1936), a work for string ensemble. The five-movement survey dances across Greece: “Epirotikos” from Epiros, “Kretikos” from Crete, “Tsamikos” from Chameria, “Arkadikos” from Arcadia, and “Kleftikos,” dance of the thieves, referring to mountain-dwelling Greeks who resisted Ottoman rule. Skalkottas envisions a cartography of the modern-day nation-state of Greece, one including Crete (so after 1913) and spanning coastal and mountainous regions, Peloponnese and “fixed Greece” (the northern mainland). The pre-concert talk described this music as quintessentially Greek and worthy of “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.” I found that description far afield from the music, even as I found Skalkottas’s music distant from traditional Greek music of my hearing. This suite of dances is very much in the late Romantic vein of folk songs and dances set for orchestra, with pronounced rhythms and structures. Skalkottas’s innovation is in the use of polytonality and different textures and timbres in these movements. BMOP gave a fine reading of these dances, and I enjoyed hearing them, even as I am not convinced the music is all that interesting. Still, it was a smart programming choice to open this concert, staying very much within the shared neoclassical/neo-romantic musical idiom of the other works on the program.

The second work was Elliott Carter’s The Minotaur (1947), scored for full orchestra with piano. Commissioned by Lincoln Kirstein for his Ballet Society in New York City, the choreography was slated for Balanchine, but scheduling conflicts meant that it was realized by John Taras. The music reflects Carter’s studies with Nadia Boulanger and his engagement with the music of Igor Stravinsky. The ballet is in 10 named sections, and, following a declamatory yet expansive Overture, it presents the narrative from Queen Pasiphaë preparing for a tryst with the sacred bull, the building of the labyrinth to house the Minotaur resulting from that tryst, the annual tribute of Greek victims, the romance between Princess Ariadne (daughter of Minos and Pasiphaë) and Theseus (Prince of Athens, and a tribute to Crete), ending with the “Greek victims are driven into the labyrinth.” The program notes elaborate on the ending: “Theseus enters the labyrinth with Ariadne’s thread (clarinet solo), fights and kills the Minotaur (ending with dissonant brass and a tam-tam stroke). Ariadne reels in the thread, but it breaks (rising flute scales as she pulls in the end of the string); she despairs. Theseus and a few of the victims rush out of the maze. Theseus abandons Ariadne, and an echo of the Overture frames the piece.”

These notes elaborate a more literal narrative and also show Carter and Kirstein creating mythology by condensing a series of stories – many of which had already been set to music by a number of composers over the years. The music itself is full of cross-rhythms which propel the music and the action forward; melodies are lush, harmonies expansive and open (unlike the labyrinth). Carter uses musical scene-painting for Pasiphaë’s tryst, the building of the labyrinth; romantic harmonies predominate as Ariadne’s passion for Theseus heats up. Snorting brass depict the Minotaur’s exhalations. I also heard sounds of Stravinksy’s Suite for Small Orchestra No. 1 during one part of the ballet. BMOP presented a committed and exciting reading of Carter’s Minotaur, giving us the opportunity to hear his wonderfully original music  as he still shows the influences of his teachers and is trying out compositional voices and styles. The narrative of The Minotaur is difficult to follow when the music is separated from the ballet, and I hope someone will revive Taras’s ballet someday soon; I would love to see the music along with the dance so I might more fully appreciate this work.

Following intermission, the strings returned to the stage for Igor Stravinsky’s Apollon Musagète (1927-28, revised 1947). Composed just after his Oedipus Rex (heard in Boston in January 2011 with the BSO and Tanglewood Festival Chorus), this work, commissioned by Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, marks the composer’s first full collaboration with George Balanchine. Balanchine called Apollo (as Stravinsky later referred to this work) “white on white” to account for its sonic restraint, while Stravinsky later said, “The absence of many-colored effects and of all superfluities produced a wonderful freshness.” The music is in two tableaux, the first recounting the god’s birth and the second, in nine movements, offering several variations of Apollo and one or more Muses. The work ends with an “Apothéose,” although whose is not clear to me since all are already deities; the program speaks of Apollo leading “his charges to Parnassus, the place of his birth.” The music opens on a French overture theme, which is not resolved; we are immediately situated in the neoclassical, and arguably also neo-romantic, sound-world of Stravinsky. The “Variation d’Apollon: Apollon et les Muses” which opens Tableau II has a delightful jazz-inflected solo violin part beautifully performed by Charles Dimmick, with Megumi Stohs joining in when it becomes a violin duet. This section also plays with textures, as the music moves from solo to duet to string quartet to full ensemble, with solos across the span of octaves; the principals of BMOP gave a delightful reading of this augmentation of line. The “Pas d’action Apollon et les trios Muses: Calliope, Polymnie et Terpsichore” plays with cross-rhythms, and this technical feat BMOP met with suitable grace. Later, in the “Coda: Apollon et les Muses,” the music danced around the halls, having some characteristics of a gig and some of a Broadway musical number – a reminder of Stravinsky’s compositional range. The concluding “Apothéose” opened on a note of keening sadness, an Adagio recalling another 20th-century work with funereal associations, a reminder that even a deification involves a sort of death. The music faded away into graceful repose.

The concluding work was Lewis Spratlan’s Apollo and Daphne Variations (1987) for full orchestra (including harp) and piano. As discussed in the pre-concert talk, this work originated in a 16-bar phrase for piano solo that sets the name of a student in a Schubert seminar, using the German note-spelling conventions; it is heard as the third section “Coda” to these Variations, and snippets of it serve to unite this work as a whole. This work is a play of dissonances, especially in the clashing overtones of the brass parts, and was by far the most atonal work on the evening’s concert. There are two principal and contrasting themes, representing Apollo and Daphne; a double fugue embedded in the middle section, “Theme with Ten Variations,” explores the pursuit and antagonism that mark this myth, culminating in the metamorphosis depicted in the “Coda.” In many ways Spratlan’s variations are also a play on music history, traversing style and idiom over the last two centuries. I left Jordan Hall thinking of this work especially as “A Night at the Movies,” since the work sounds like a mash-up of all the sounds and musical fragments used to score a Hollywood film (romantic, or neo-romantic, piano; tremolo high-pitched strings for scary scenes; declamatory brass for grandeur and wide vistas). I also assumed my reaction was a personal oddity – until another attendee independently made a similar observation. So there is something here, whether by design or by happenstance. This gives Spratlan’s music a certain familiarity even upon first hearing.

I am grateful to have heard this concert, especially for the discovery of Carter’s Minotaur and the opportunity to hear Stravinsky’s Apollon Musagète performed live. At the same time, I felt that this concert only gave half the picture: dance, whether folk or staged, was the subtext in this concert of Apollo’s Fire, and I missed seeing the dancing – especially in the Carter and Stravinsky. As noted above, the end of the Stravinsky is not clear to me as narrative or program. Independently the music is clear, but the description and notes puzzle me; I read them fully afterwards and am recording here my own, very different, reaction to the music as well as my bafflement at the narrative described. To a lesser extent the Carter narrative is also opaque, since he is clearly creating a riff on the established myths surrounding the Minotaur (in fashion worthy of an ancient Greek). I would love to see these dances performed to enhance the music and also to answer my own questions! Would BMOP consider collaborating with Boston Ballet anytime in the future? The music is ready to go; we only need prepare the choreography and sets for a truly exciting night of Apollo at the Ballet!

Cashman Kerr Prince is trained in Classics and Comparative Literature and is now a Visiting Scholar in the Department of Classical Studies at Wellesley College.  He is also a cellist, currently playing with the Brookline Symphony Orchestra.

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