in: Reviews

October 11, 2012

Substitute Schulhoff Missed Visceral Elements


Marcelo Lehninger leads BSO Members with the Hawthorne String Quartet (Stu Rosner photo)

By Tuesday night when I heard it, the Boston Symphony Orchestra seemed to have given Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet “overture-fantasy” and Dvořák’s Symphony No. 8 in G their fair share of the season. Both works were performed in a three-concert series last week, along with Bernstein’s Serenade After Plato’s “Symposium” for violin and orchestra, with featured soloist Joshua Bell. Last night the Tchaikovsky and Dvořák book-ended Schulhoff’s Concerto for String Quartet with Wind Orchestra, allowing yet another perspective onto the first two works. It was just hard to tell whether that perspective was rooted in reflection on the new piece, or overexposure to the other two.

Perhaps under the influence of Schulhoff’s modernism, or maybe just to say something “else” about Tchaikovsky’s lush, lyrical warhorse, conductor Marcelo Lehninger and the BSO offered a stark reading of Romeo and Juliet, at times revealing, at times unnerving. Tempos were pensive, almost nearly static, with the phrases of the introduction not just resolving but freezing in their tracks. The shimmering strings following the entrance of the well known “love theme” offered some welcome vibrato and sheen, yet textures were mostly shaded and cool. Instead of melodies unfolding a narrative,the dense blocks of sound zeroed in on Tchaikovsky’s harmonic sensibility as well as the thick line between blood feud and young love. Given the bleak atmosphere, the closing funeral march arrived like a predictable ending.

While that austerity may have been revealing or at least novel in the Tchaikovsky, it hampered Schulhoff’s Concerto for String Quartet with Wind Orchestra. While the circumstances of Schulhoff’s death (he fled from Nazi oppression only to die in a concentration camp) cast a grim shadow, the composer explored a variety of ideas and sentiments in his music. He was a musical sponge who studied and absorbed influences as diverse as Dvořák, Debussy, Schoenberg, Neoclassicism, Marx and Dada; and he also had a keen interest in jazz, both as a composer, record collector and a regular at jazz clubs. As Steven Ledbetter’s program notes explained, Schulhoff’s Concerto puts its own spin on the Baroque concerto grosso (with strings playing concertino to a wind ripieno!), drawing upon that era’s motor rhythms while alluding to the brassy colors and tense rhythms of American pop and jazz.

Unfortunately the winds of the BSO, joined by the Hawthorne String Quartet, sounded at odds with this work’s more visceral elements. Most of the time a monochromatic palette and mechanical approach prevailed. The second movement included touching clarinet and cello themes peaking out through Schulhoff’s quirky harmonies, yet brass undercurrents behind the strings never picked up any momentum. The first movement’s final ritornello sounded disjointed and hollow. The third movement started strong with Pulcinella-like mirth, yet quickly turned into rote passagework.

To be fair, the musicians may have been hampered by the acoustics. The 15-piece wind ensemble sounded like it was trapped in a coffee can, with disruptive echoes and muddy blends obscuring the BSO principals’ gorgeous tones. For this reviewer, seated several rows back on the left side of the hall, there was just a trace of the tuba’s and horns’ punch, the chattering figures in the brass or the tangy, deliciously nasal woodwind colors. It wasn’t until the winds dropped out for the quartet’s cadenza in the first movement that one got a real sense of Schulhoff’s knotty writing or the Hawthorne Quartet’s incisive playing.

By contrast, Dvořák’s folksy, full-bodied Symphony No. 8 suited Lehninger and the BSO far better. The eighth symphony was Dvořák’s attempt to move out from the shadow of Brahms which loomed over his previous symphony, and Lehninger allowed Dvořák’s inventive orchestration and use of strong flavors from his Czech homeland to speak for themselves. The humorously lumbering bass lines and scurrying accompaniment underneath the variety of woodwinds in the Adagio, or the cellos’ beautiful melody in the concluding Allegro Ma Non Troppo didn’t need any coaxing or over-thinking. Prominent brass in the opening Allegro Con Brio and a few dramatic leans during the third movement Allegretto Grazioso were a welcome touch by the conductor, yet even the steamrolling final coda seemed to grow organically out the of the score as well as the BSO’s vivid interplay. They could either go on playing this one every night this way, or were just excited to be putting this one away for the season.

Andrew J. Sammut, who plays clarinet, also writes for Early Music America and All About Jazz and covers the “pop of yestercentury” on his blog, Aesthetic, Not Anesthetic. He lives in Cambridge.


  1. Nonsense!
    Tuesday night’s concert was remarkable in every way. Marcelo Lehninger was thrilling in both the Romeo + Juliet and the Dvorak 8th. The BSO playing was perfection itself. I’ve heard the 8th (old # 4) live about 20 times since 1961.. Charles Munch’s performance made me fall in love with the work. Lehninger’s was the greatest of all!

    Schulhoff’s Concerto for String Quartet with Wind Orchestra is an interesting piece and the balance between the orchestra and quartet was handled extremely well…a difficult task. Your seat was no doubt a very bad acoustically. Yes, there are some that are poor. The BSO seems to love playing under Lehninger. What a great choice for the next BSO Music Director.

    Wonderful to have the hall returned to stage extension, speakers, drapes etc.

    Comment by Ed Burke — October 11, 2012 at 6:26 pm

  2. Couldn’t agree more with Ed.

    I’d add that one of the wonderful things about the Schulhoff is that he’s written a piece that we can recognize as neoclassical, but his palette is his own, and certainly “tangy” woodwinds aren’t part of that. This wasn’t your Stravinsky neoclassical at all. It was a sound world all its own, and the throwback to the concerto grosso with strings and winds in each other’s “natural” position was delightful.

    Comment by Will — October 12, 2012 at 1:44 pm

  3. “Nonsense” is a harsh word to apply to this review. I was at the concert that evening (tho’ I had to leave before the Dvorak), and although I somewhat disagree with the reviewer, his analysis is right on; it just that it did not appeal to him. Tempos indeed seemed to me “pensive” and the mood somewhat “stark”; this I found totally in keeping with one of the most unbearably tragic love stories ever written. Having gone to hear the Schulhoff, I found the Romeo and Juliet surprisingly fresh, rather than hackneyed — or, as the reviewer put it, “revealing” and “novel.” As for the Schulhoff, I too was disappointed – though probably a bit less; I did not know the work, but knowing of Schulhoff’s love of jazz and his dancing the night away in nightclubs, I expected to find myself kicking to the beat. I didn’t. And as someone who dates from the “slow fox trot” era, I expected to find a bit of nostalgia. I didn’t.

    Sammut also made me realize that “tangy, deliciously nasal woodwind colors” were part of what seemed missing.

    I do think Lehninger has a very good command of the orchestra; I was particularly impressed at how instantaneously the players went from ff to pp at the flip of his left hand — no sliding into it at all. He’s great in my book.

    So is Sammut.

    Comment by Bettina A. Norton — October 12, 2012 at 6:05 pm

  4. Saying this review is “right on” is nonsense indeed.

    Comment by Will — October 13, 2012 at 1:01 pm

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