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Denève, Ma, BSO Enrapture Tanglewood


Yo Yo Ma and Stephane Deneve (Hilary Scott photo)

Stéphane Denève, the vibrant French conductor who debuted with the BSO so impressively in April 2011 was on the podium Saturday evening August 11th in the Koussevitzky Music Shed for an intriguing program of Shostakovich and Elgar, with an André Previn world premiere. Denève’s rapport with the orchestra throughout the evening was palpable, eliciting attentive playing of extraordinary dynamic range and elegant sonority whether loud or soft. At times the proverbial pin-drop might have been audible all the way to Lake Mahkeenac.

André Previn’s 2012 Music for Boston is a curious bit of orchestral excursion, sounding quite eclectic and derivative, yet expertly crafted and easy on the ears. At its opening, with its long-spun low-lying unison string sonorities, I would have sworn that Previn was paying homage to the opening of Roy Harris’s Third Symphony, and a bit later I was equally convinced that I was hearing homage to William Schuman’s Symphony No. 3, with its massive block chords from the brass and the jumpy, disjunctive melodic line and elegant trumpet solos — the latter beautifully played by Thomas Rolfs. These two earlier symphonies were both BSO premieres and played by the BSO at Tanglewood and Symphony Hall under Serge Koussevitzky. The Schuman “3rd” is also dedicated to Koussevitzky. Surely Previn knows this, and I presume these “hidden” homages were intentional. There was, however, no mention of this in the Tanglewood program notes or the composer’s short introductory paragraph. In any event, as has been the case with much of Previn’s recent music played by the BSO, my overall impression was one of pleasantness and a somewhat facile spinning of sound and melody; on this evening these ended quite abruptly, as if the compositional spigot had been twisted to the “off” position mid-flow. And as for anything overtly “Bostonian” about the music (other than the above surmises) one was left wondering. A waggish audience member wondered aloud whether Previn might have confused Boston with Hollywood. Denève, for his part, was in complete command of this world premiere performance, which he conducted with expert clarity and assurance. At the end, Previn stood from within the audience to receive thanks and admiration from all present. He looked to be in good health and happy with what he had heard.

Yo-Yo Ma then came on stage to play, in his inimitable fashion, the Edward Elgar Cello Concerto in E minor, op. 85, a rhapsodic, ruminative, and episodic work which cellists readily embrace but the music of which seems to divide audiences between passive tolerance and total, loving acceptance. As one expected, Ma was the complete master of this late-composed work, running its every possible emotional gamut, illuminating every dark corner, reveling in every rapid 16th-note scamper, empathizing with every deep rumination, and somehow unifying all this music’s many disparate elements so that the concerto’s sum proved larger than its four-movement parts. The music world is a better place for Yo-Yo Ma’s constant efforts in collaborative music making, and the BSO was smilingly with him all the way. This was a cherishable performance of a challenging work.

Following intermission, the orchestra and Mr. Denève gave what may have been a note-perfect performance of Dimitri Shostakovich’s most famous Symphony, the No. 5 in D minor, op. 47. This music, premiered in Russia during harrowing times under Josef Stalin’s dictatorship, probably saved Shostakovich from a horrible fate at the hands of the Russian regime, which had been unhappy with the composer’s immediately preceding music, apparently feeling that its inward -looking contemplations and outward expressions of presumed sarcasm were anti-Soviet. Probably so, but Shostakovich knew he had much more music to write and regimes will change over time. He introduced his Fifth Symphony as “…a Soviet artist’s creative reply to just criticism” in 1937; its premiere was played on November 21 by the redoubtable Yevgeny Mravinsky and the Leningrad Philharmonic. The symphony was an immediate success among its concert audiences, and the Soviets, though not thoroughly convinced of the composer’s contrition, grudgingly granted him absolution.

Ongoing scholarly explorations of Shostakovich’s life and music point to moments in this Symphony that hide in plain sight the composer’s true feelings. Indeed, when one hears the utter bleakness and hopelessness of the work’s Largo movement, it’s not hard to imagine the composer’s despair at what had befallen him and his countrymen. Shostakovich’s heavy-footed second movement, which Mahler might have described as “…sehr derb” (very course, uncouth, crude,…) as he had his own Ninth Symphony’s second movement, could easily be envisioned as an artless waltz tromped out by a passel of Soviet commissars. And the Symphony’s final movement, often assumed to be a paean of triumph, could be seen as a very loud statement of hollow victory, especially as its savagely beaten last eight notes are emphasized by a heavily struck bass drum and the timpanist is asked to hit his drums simultaneously with paired sticks.

This performance was impeccable, perfectly in tune at treacherously difficult points where it often is not, amazingly softly played where indicated, and impressively fulsome when the composer asked for all-out fortissimi. The tempi were ideal, and the final movement employed the now-acknowledged correct slow tempo as it approached its thunderous end. Yet, somehow, I felt something was missing. All was perfect and neat, yet somehow uninvolved. I remembered hearing a performance of this same work within this same venue, with the same-named orchestra from July 22, 1979, under Leonard Bernstein’s direction. While perhaps not so completely flawlessly played, it was the most searing and emotional performance of the Shostakovich 5th that I have heard, before or since. That emotion, that angst, that Bernsteinian Weltschmertz was what was missing last Saturday in Denève’s otherwise wonderful performance. I’ll remember Denève’s amazing dynamic control and the BSO’s thrillingly on-point playing for some time, I’m sure. But it’s Bernstein’s — and Shostakovich’s — heart and soul as revealed in that profound 1979 Tanglewood reading that I’ll recall with deepest respect in my long-term memory.

John W. Ehrlich is music director of Spectrum Singers, which he founded 34 years ago. He has been a singer and conductor in the Boston area for more than 30 years.


5 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. I was listening the concert over the WCRB-FM.

    The Previn’s “Music for Boston” did not do anything for me. It has a few nice and juicy phrases and then it submerged to some cacophony-Americana, some sort of marching band music, or something that I do not care. Perhaps Previn shall come back to his Germanic roots and stop making attempts to compose the boring American music of the late 20 century…

    The Yo-Yo Ma in Edward Concerto was very-very pleasant but to appreciate it did require some listening techniques. The key of those techniques was peaty much discard BSO. BSO generally is not so great accompaniment ensemble. Even on Symphony Hall and with a conductor who well know the environment they very seldom show “interesting” coordination between soloist and orchestra. In Tanglewood, with it’s very complicated acoustics and a new compactor I did not even expect that it will be anything “compiled”. So it was and as soon Mr. Ma hit the first note I pretty much treated it as Edward’s 3- movement prelude for cello. I very much like what I heared and as the concert was over I was applauded.

    The Shostakovich was kind of interesting. I need to admit that I was distracted by fist 2.5 movements and was not “there”. As I returned to the BSO and Shostakovich Stéphane Denève was closing his 3 movement, I felt that it was nothing special. Then, totally out of blue, Denève show off the opening of the 4th movement that that made me to shout: “Eventually!” The opening march was very properly done in term of tempo and some very intricate rhythmic accents. This is VERY rarely done properly (or interestingly) but Mr. Denève did nail. BSO at the begging of the march was sliding all over but then the a bit focused and went along. It wasn’t the best Shostakovich’s 5 march but it was a great demonstration, in my view, HOW the march might be interpreted. I would like to alter this demonstration deeper rubbery-springy effect but even with it is was very nice. The rest of the 4th movement did not do a lot to me. Mr. Denève went too fast later on and in my view too superficial. The whole drama of the “Guantanamo” episode in the middle of the movement (and to the rest of the symphony) sounded with less tension or drama then it might have.

    In the end, I wish people stop on radio and in writing to stress the history of Shostakovich Fifth symphony and stories about Russian regime. This might appear sensational for the people who all life watch “The Real Housewives of New Jersey” but general concertgoers kind of sick from attempts to depict Shostakovich as some kind Soviet Jesus Christ. First of all it is absolutely not correct and second of all – it is not necessary. Get music for whatever it is and do not imbed into music any near- musical fictional surrogate that shell not be there.

    Comment by Romy The Cat — August 15, 2012 at 8:06 am

  2. Whence arose this idea that Shostakovich asks the timpanist to play with both sticks on the final notes? There is no such directive on the parts or in any score that I have examined. When a conductor recently suggested that I do so, he referred to a performance of the San Francisco Symphony under Thomas–in their “Keeping Score” series. I watched that performance, and as far as I could tell, the timpanist there was trying to increase his sound by playing four drums, two on D and two on A–like using two timpanists with two pairs of drums for those notes. I did that, and it sounds terrific and looks macho, but it isn’t in the score. Mahler does ask for two-handed strokes at the end of the 3rd movement of his 4th Symphony, but even then, most of us play that by using grace notes–that is, striking the drums with alternate hands closely together, but not truly at the same time. Why? Because striking a timpano with both sticks at exactly the same time usually produces a poor sound and unreliable rebounds. The head’s normal vibration pattern is deranged by being struck at two different spots at the same time. Try plucking a violin string with three or four fingers at once, and you’ll get a feel for the problem.

    Maybe Ehrlich is right about this. But if were four drums on the stage for that concert–the part requires only three, and one can do it with two and a little pedalling–then I suspect that he was hearing two pairs of drums being played by one player, something Shostakovich would probably have liked, but did not conceive.

    Comment by Richard Horn — August 15, 2012 at 4:06 pm

  3. Thank you, Mr. Horn, for your comment. I didn’t count the total number of tympani Mr. Genis employed, but I did definitely observe his paired-sticks striking of two of his drums at the very end of the last movement. Perhaps he decided to do this on his own, or perhaps Maestro Deneve asked him to – I have no way of knowing. In any case, it’s instructive and refreshing to have a practicing tympanist comment on this issue, and we are better for it.

    Romy – as always, your observations are interesting. Thanks to you as well. It was never my intention to deify Shostakovich by citing what others think may have influenced his composition. I mentioned those surmises only to set context. Note that I repeatedly used the word “could” so as not to appear to be stating known facts. As for the culture of fear engendered by Josef Stalin during the time of the 5th Symphony’s composition, I’m sure you’d agree there is plenty of evidence to support that fact. That this would not have had some affect on Shostakovich is unimaginable, and surely it’s a valid issue to consider.


    Comment by John W. Ehrlich — August 16, 2012 at 9:00 am

  4. *** As for the culture of fear engendered by Josef Stalin during the time of the 5th Symphony’s composition, I’m sure you’d agree there is plenty of evidence to support that fact. That this would not have had some affect on Shostakovich is unimaginable, and surely it’s a valid issue to consider.

    The Stalin’s culture of fear might be a fact but it has absolutely nothing to do with Shostakovich. He was very deeply plugged into the soviet nomenclature composer and was very much bred by Soviets. Before Stalin death he got 11 Stalin’ prizes. Ironically West loves to portray him as some kind of “unfortunate suffering Russky” but it is very inaccurate view.

    Comment by Romy The Cat — August 16, 2012 at 10:52 am

  5. Romy writes of the BSO under

    >> a new compactor

    Can’t wait!

    Comment by David Moran — August 17, 2012 at 10:14 pm

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