in: Reviews

November 16, 2012

BSO Sonic Scene with Adès, Upshaw, Gerstein

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Two musical essays on creation, a concerto, a symphony, two soloists and a composer-conductor provided Thursday night’s Boston Symphony Orchestra’s concert—yet another twist for the current season. Worldwide celebrity Dawn Upshaw haunted Sibelius’s myth-born Luonnotar. Thomas Adès led his own oozing and pulsating In Seven Days for piano and orchestra with Kirill Gerstein making his BSO subscription series debut as a clairvoyant soloist in both the Adès and Prokofiev’s First Concerto. There was shining sound everywhere throughout the evening up to the final whispered notes of the Finnish composer’s Sixth Symphony under a dancing, and sometimes prissy, baton of Adès.

Given such a combination of pieces, expectations can run high. Or, looking at the vacant seats around Symphony Hall, perhaps the BSO’s programming had the opposite effect on concert-goers. I left the hall humming “the three whales that hold the concerto together” or that “blow to the head” (po cherepu) recalled by annotator Harlow Robinson—Prokofiev’s five-note phrase first heard over and again in the opening bars. It is still hard to believe that the Russian started his Piano Concerto No. 1 in D-flat major at age 19, completing it before he was 21. Gerstein’s polish, power, and prowess played well with the perfection-bound and sun-filled sonorities of the BSO.

And how did all those whales sing, with accents carrying the way, or with more evenness? Swells, big and bigger ones as if the “whales” were making wave after wave, moving closer and closer, into one mammoth wave reaching a giant climax. The slower middle part of the one-movement concerto touched upon loveliness but more swells from the orchestra became a conscious endeavor. As strongly as he could produce the octaves in the final approach to the end of the concerto, Gerstein’s playing could not be heard as it was disappointingly overpowered by the large orchestra.

A peek at the ending lines of Luonnotar informs: “From the cracked egg’s upper fragment rose the lofty arch of heaven/From the white the upper fragment/Rose the moon that shines so brightly/All that in the egg was mottled/ Now became the stars in heaven.” I would have preferred a purer environment than what Dawn Upshaw created, more a reflection of a can-this-really-be-so, rather than a this-is-how-it-all-happened kind of interpretation. Those haunting Sibelius notes rising and falling just above and below normal melodic destinations that would have us encounter the miraculous creation figured less in her performance.

It was an evening for basking in glorious orchestral colors; breathing, though, was another matter. London born Thomas Adès, who, besides being both a composer and conductor, is also a pianist and, by the way, will be appearing at Jordan Hall this coming Sunday with the Boston Symphony Chamber Players. Abundantly gifted and a consummate musician, Adès, is blazing many trails. His creation piece of seven movements, that followed Luonnotar, surprisingly never allowed for a space wherein we could catch our collective breaths. One listener put it this way, “I didn’t get it. Maybe I need to hear the piece again.” Another commented, “I don’t want to hear it again. I thought it would never end.”

Its relentless pulsing, especially in the piano, its respiratory life obviated, In Seven Days bespoke the creation in a language of post-industrial machinery and 24-7 nonstop culture. The big bang preceding “Stars—Sun—Moon” was one of a number of brilliant flashes, two others were the completely stunning, almost faster-than-the-speed-of-sound passages, one from Cynthia Meyer, piccolo and the other from James Sommerville, Principal Horn. Much too much fuss, though, over minutiae stalled the densely composed sound picture.

Overall, one major element of music making hardly factored into a concert that appeared at first glance to be most promising. Even the concluding work, Symphony No. 6, Op. 104 by Jan Sibelius, bound to boldness, subjugated breath. Life came into question.

Thomas Ades, Kirill-Gerstein (Stu-Rosner photo)

David Patterson, Professor of Music and former chairman of the Performing Arts Department at UMass Boston, was recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Award and the Chancellor’s Distinction in Teaching Award. He studied with Nadia Boulanger and Olivier Messiaen in Paris and holds a PhD from Harvard University. www.notescape.net

17 Comments

  1. Oh dear, the yawn behind the piano…

    I was at Thursday’s performance and while I thought the Luonnotar was spectacular, I was a little disappointed with the BSO’s rendition of In Seven Days. Having listend to the recording several times, I felt like the BSO wasn’t quite able to capture all of the dynamics. If I did not know from prior hearings that the piece has form, I would have assumed that Adès had overorchestrated it, leaving it muddy.

    Of course recordings have the advantage of multiple microphones and post-processing, but I feel that if there are any orchestras and halls that can make a piece sound clear, surely this is one such orchestra and one such hall.

    To me the atmosphere felt tense, as if the orchestra were not comfortable with the piece. I can only hope that on subsequent performances it settles down a bit and Adès’s music shines through.

    Comment by Mark — November 16, 2012 at 6:03 pm

  2. David Patterson’s description of the BSO’s “shining sound everywhere” is right on the mark, from the Friday afternoon performance I just heard. But I did wince at the description of Ade(accent grave)’s as “prissy”; I LOVED his conducting. And as a graduate of Northfield School for Girls with its compulsory Education in the Bible and religious history, I found Ades’s piece fabulous: suggestive, colorful, powerful, … And (as so typical of many current composers, full of wonderful sonorities , statements if you will, by the winds.

    I have always loved Dawn Upshaw’s obvious humanity in her singing, which is still present; but I found her voice not as healthy. Am I alone in this opinion?

    T members of the course I lead, Revelations III, will go to Jordan Hall to hear Ades and Gerstein play Beethoven’s own transcription for two pianos of Grosse Fuge, and two Carter pieces with the BSO Chamber Players.. Tonight, to hear Marc-Andre (accent aigu) play. What a life! What a city!

    Comment by Bettina A . Morton — November 16, 2012 at 6:28 pm

  3. How I wish I had been there, I’ll have to listen on Saturday night. But , I know, not the same thing.

    Comment by Leslie — November 16, 2012 at 8:45 pm

  4. A recent Sibelius performance, captured at Jordan Hall in exemplary sound by Instant Encore, which resource. please note, allows one and all to catch up with and re-hear any number of fugitive (one had thought) musical events. Am I impossibly perverse, or doesn’t the recurrent rhythmic figure that gives “En Saga” its peculiar identity have a certain disco quality?

    http://www.instantencore.com/work/work.aspx?work=5008632

    Any comments on the work, the performance, the sound? The aural image is more detailed and up front — a case of nowhere to hide, if you like — than from the big hall across the street, yet somehow just as big and ample.

    These are students?

    Comment by Richard Buell — November 16, 2012 at 11:26 pm

  5. Am I the only one to hear a very new compositional language in Thomas Ades? Even a sort of emancipation?

    I disagree with David Patterson’s characterization of “In Seven Days” as “bespeaking a language of postindustrial machinery.” On the contrary, it seemed to speak in some kind of new “Vitalist” language — leaving behind High-Modernism for some kind of marvelously Protean “Entanglement” language of Splendor, with uncontrollable forces giving birth to beauty and monsters all at once and at different speeds. So: NOT a machinery-creation painted, say, by Fernand Leger, but a vertiginous creation more like Tintoretto’s “Origin of the Milky Way”!

    And I also disagree with “prissy.” Ades had quirky, instinctive gestures that reminded me of Pina Baush. He seemed to be engulfed in the music, besieged! Indeed: Enfant et les sortileges!

    Comment by Ashley — November 17, 2012 at 8:15 am

  6. “Tintoretto’s ‘Origin of the Milky Way'” is a brilliant analogy: the incredible sweeping compositional vision, executed with skillful ‘brushwork,’ wonderful coloration of figures, often with the subtlest outlining in black, and a complex but overall cohesion.

    Comment by Bettina A . Morton — November 17, 2012 at 8:36 am

  7. Oh oh. My last name is Norton…

    Comment by Bettina A . Morton — November 17, 2012 at 8:37 am

  8. This fine and helpfully descriptive writeup only hints at one of the many unusual aspects of the performance, to my ear — how loud almost all of it was. Sitting in row N center, I don’t think I have ever heard a BSO performance there at that spl. At every turn I was intrigued, and more, by what I was hearing, found it a fascinatingly conceived, powerful program, and it was not that Ades, who does appear to have a rather blunt technique, didn’t have them play softly at moments. But bam, repeatedly. Must listen to the rebroadcasts to see if they convey some of that feel.

    I also was glad the crowd was as large as it was, and their strong enthusiasms seemed to me less kneejerk, more thoughtful than usual. What a concert.

    Comment by David Moran — November 17, 2012 at 10:34 am

  9. The thing I thought I noticed was how episodic (if that’s the right word) each piece was. That is, these amateur ears detected no large-scale development of themes in any of the pieces. My impression of each was, “Here’s this bit, now here’s that, and now the next.” Perhaps rehearings would disclose some recurring and unifying elements, such as the passacaglia in “In Seven Days” which, even having been alerted beforehand, I didn’t follow.

    It struck me as a nice bit of programming to give us two Sibelius pieces, two about creation, and two with piano and have 2+2+2=4.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — November 17, 2012 at 12:14 pm

  10. I must say I find the 2nd half of the concert was way more important than the 1st half. The 80% of the reason I was in the Hall on Thursday evening was Sibelius 6th. I had been waiting for it since Newhouse conducted No.2 last season. Zander’s Lemminkaeinen legend (No.1) only exacerbated my Sibelius thirst. (BTW, I have no interest in the French works in the closing concert before winter)

    Prokoviev PC1 is also far more important than the other piece on the program, which is miraculously the one everyone here is talking about.

    Comment by Thorsten Zhu — November 17, 2012 at 11:30 pm

  11. On the Ades piece I must agree with Ms. Morton. In the Prokofiev I still can’t find the fifth
    note of the opening theme; all my recordings use four.

    Comment by Martin Cohn — November 18, 2012 at 9:49 am

  12. Who replaced Dawn Upshaw on Saturday evening?

    Comment by Rebecca Valette — November 18, 2012 at 4:03 pm

  13. @ Martin – in many (but by no means all) of the Prokofiev ‘five-note’ sequences, the 4th beat is dotted 8th-16th; these are always on the same pitch, so if not clearly articulated the theme will certainly seem like only four notes.

    Comment by Gerry — November 18, 2012 at 7:52 pm

  14. It might be really wise..and productive for the BSO to deepen it’s relationship with Mr.Ades..He’s a consummate musician and a dynamic draw for the sub 40’s

    Comment by Steve Brown — November 18, 2012 at 9:19 pm

  15. Whether it is quirky or prissy, Ades gesticulates at the instruments expected to be heard at the right moments quite markedly precisely. I admire his skills. Sometimes,I fear that the gestures may not reflect the mood of the music (it happens all the time), but I did not see much of his problem.

    The BSO was not able to play in a true Sibelius atmosphere, because they did not create it. There was a moment when the alternative concert master (female) let the leash of the orchestra loosen. The string lost self discipline when they played too ‘high’ when diminuendo was what the composer and conductor asked for.

    The BSO probably was never good at Sibelius. Their 70s recordings with Davis are much over rated. Those are mediocre at best. Perhaps being on the market early was the reason for the recognition. I think the 6th I heard on Thursday was even below that standard. I don;t know what Ades could do to make it better.

    Comment by Thorsten Zhu — November 18, 2012 at 11:26 pm

  16. Working without any space limitations, Mr. Patterson decides he needs an adjective to label the conductor’s conducting style rather than actually describe it. He searches his vocabulary and perhaps his thesaurus and opts for “prissy”. I suppose it’s not the first time this gay composer/conductor has been tagged that way, but perhaps the first time in such supposedly mature and sophisticated circles as the Intelligencer.

    Comment by Art — November 24, 2012 at 5:45 pm

  17. Does Art believe that Patterson, or anyone else, considers “prissy” code for gay? Prissiness exists in a subset of gay and and straight men. Have a look at the picture in this review.

    Comment by de novo2 — November 24, 2012 at 7:05 pm

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