Sixty years ago the great Leopold Stokowski led the Boston University Symphony and Symphonic Chorus in the East Coast United States premiere of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana before taking the work to Carnegie Hall in New York. On Monday night David Hoose brought the same forces to Symphony Hall along with the Boston Children’s Chorus in a celebratory performance of Orff’s most famous work. The stage was filled to overflowing onto an extension apron and beyond—the children were deployed at the front of the first balcony.
Symphony Hall was full with an enthusiastic crowd of the lowest average age I have ever seen there for an orchestral performance. Many of these were no doubt friends and parents of the members of the very large orchestra and chorus which BU had fielded. And what a grand exuberant sound those forces made! And how proud of themselves they seemed afterwards when they applauded their leader, David Hoose.
The familiar Carmina Burana, a dramatic cantata in five large scenes subdivided in twenty-four movements, never fails to whip up an audience. And the players on Monday night did not disappoint. Hoose did an excellent job indicating the many changes in dynamics and tempi—some gradual and some abrupt. For the most part the things lined up well, though at a few times chorus and orchestra did not shift gears simultaneously. The men of the chorus impersonated lusty monks with a lively ease (and strong consonants), while the women expressed their more lyrical role with ravishing tones. Among the soloists, baritone James Demler inhabited his demanding and wide-ranging role with handsome and colorful tone as well as dramatic conviction. The Boston Children’s chorus did themselves proud, though we hope they didn’t read the translations of the lascivious text. The players in the very large orchestra gave their all, and did not seem to tire or falter through the demanding evening. The strings, led by concertmaster Sarah Attwood, delivered suitably varied tones ranging from savage strumming to a sumptuous “Philadelphia sound.” The winds had some marvelous moments, including particularly fine solos from Nikoma Baccus, flute; and Jensen Ling, bassoon (in the “Roasted Swan” the bassoon goes up to high D). The busy and exposed brass section had fewer than the expected share of mishaps.
If there were any complaint about this performance it would be over-exuberance from the orchestra. They reached fortes a bit too quickly and too often when they should have been more deferential to the soloists and the chorus. This took away some of the drama that rightfully belongs to the singers in this piece.
The opener was Edgard Varèse’s Hyperprism, a noisy and scary grab-bag of orchestral tricks delivered in under ten minutes. The small ensemble of mostly brass (also clarinet and flute doubling piccolo), with a very large percussion section (typical of Varèse), benefited from Hoose’s objective marshaling. This music has its own drama in abundance and doesn’t want or need any romantic shaping.
When we think of Percy Grainger, we summon up Country Gardens, or Lincolnshire Posy, or similar light semi-classical favorites from our grandparents’ era. How surprising it was for me then to make a first acquaintance with the composer’s The Warriors—Music to an Imaginary Ballet, one of his few experiments in larger, more serious forms. He always had doubts about his place in the canon, and this piece seemed a way for him to show his modern bona fides. His tunes were still in evidence, but they were fractured and interspersed with riffs on Stravinsky and other modernists. Grainger demanded a very large ensemble with many pianos (three on Monday night) and an offstage brass band. Two assistant conductors helped Hoose deal with the rhythmic complexity. We were grateful to encounter a piece unheard in Boston since 1925 in such a secure and confident performance.
But I do wonder, if he is right about his charges, why David Hoose would program works of two anti-Semites and a possible Nazi and then feel the need to write a three paragraph apologia. I’m not convinced that the quality of the compositions compensated for the composers’ alleged baggage. But I’m happy to let David offer his rationalizations in the excerpt below:
Do the personalities, beliefs and proclivities of creative artists have bearing on the quality of their work? . . . Should our judgments about their creations be swayed by what we know of them as people. . . may we hold them (and their work) accountable to a hindsight that only we may have? Edgard Varèse was an anti-Semite. Percy Grainger was one, too. . . Carl Orff, too, is troubling. . . a man who thrived in Germany during the Second World War. . . he tended to indulge in history rewrites that cast himself in more favorable light than perhaps warranted. . . Richard Taruskin, ever the uninhibited musicologist, said that, “aesthetics or not, Carmina Burana to me is fascist music.”
In closing I append (with permission) David Hoose’s lucid notes on the two unfamiliar works he presented. He described them better than I can.
Violence dominates “Hyperprism’s” brief span, especially in the percussion outbursts and the extreme registers of the wind instruments. Piccolo and little clarinet screeches pit against the trombone growls and percussion convulsions. The tenor trombone leads with oratorical hysteria, and the two woodwinds respond, first separately and shackled together. Suddenly everything quiets, and ominous percussion thumps suggest that what has come before was simply introductory, and that the piece is just about to really begin. Affirming that impression, the three horns cry out heroically, but the other instruments cut them off with a terrifying sustained chord, the percussion build thunderously, and the piece abruptly stops. The large shape of Varese’s music frequently surprises, but Hyperprism is one of the most startling, its ritual halted before it has completely established itself.
“The Warriors” is thrilling, unpredictable music, jumping freely from the goofy to the touching, (occasionally) violent, and (often) giddily chaotic. Were its harmonic language much more chromatic, the music would invoke the controlled pandemonium of Charles Ives. The Warriors does include some Ivesian trademarks, including multiple layers of music traveling in different tempi (requiring two conductors) and the call of a distant brass band (requiring yet another, third, conductor).
“The Warriors’ ” score’s daunting instrumentation requires piccolo, two flutes, two oboes, English horn, bass oboe (an entirely different beast than the English horn), two clarinets, bass clarinet, two bassoons, contrabassoon, six horns, four trumpets, three trombones, tuba, the off-stage band that includes two each of trumpets, horns and trombones, and a full string section. To that already large ensemble is added two harps, celesta, and a huge group of percussion instruments, mostly pitched percussion, including timpani, xylophone, glockenspiel, steel marimba, wooden marimba, bells, chimes, snare drum, tambourine, cymbals, bass drum, gong, castanets, and woodblock. To top it off, The Warriors calls for three pianos. The composer suggests six or nine pianos, or even more if three aren’t loud enough, and there is even a photograph4 showing a 1930 performance by the Chicago Musical College at the Chicago Civic Opera House, with a full orchestra that includes thirty pianists playing nineteen pianos! (This performance will include only a modest three.) It is therefore no surprise that this spectacular music is infrequently performed. There is no record of its having been heard in Boston since January of 1925, when Grainger conducted the People’s Symphony Orchestra of Boston in the second public performance.
See related article here.