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.