IN: Reviews

Three Centuries of Music in Two Works


Alexandra Coku Karen Cargill MatthewPlenzani and David Pittsinger                  with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus under-Rafael Frubek De Burgos     (Stu Rosner photo)
Alexandra Coku, Karen Cargill, Matthew Polenzani, and David Pittsinger with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus and Boston Symphony under the direction of Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos. (Stu Rosner photo)

Last night the Boston Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, presented Stravinsky’s Pulcinella and Haydn’s Mass in a Time of War. This disjointed program offered two wonderful works, perhaps pairing them for the first time. From neoclassical to classical, the concert was a study in musical innovations.

The evening began with reduced orchestral forces and three singers on stage, presenting Igor Stravinsky’s 1949 revision to the complete, one-act ballet Pulcinella. In eighteen sections, this composition originally accompanied a 1920 Ballets Russes production (choreography by Massine, décor and costumes by Picasso). The narrative is drawn from Neapolitan commedia dell’arte, specifically the manuscript Quatre Polichinelles semblables from c. 1700; the music took as its jumping off point works then attributed to Giambattista Pergolesi (although many are now identified as works of other eighteenth-century composers, including Domenico Gallo, Count van Wassenaer, and Carlo Ignazio Monza). These bass lines and melodies shine through, but the composition as a whole has the decided flair of Igor Stravinsky, for whom this project really marked the beginning of his neoclassical phase. Harlow Robinson’s program note quotes Diaghilev characterizing this work as “Stravinsky à la Pergolesi,” which gets to the heart of this composition’s combination of tradition and innovation. More expansively, in the “Developments” section of Stravinsky and Craft’s Expositions and Developments, Stravinsky has this to say:

‘Pulcinella’ was my discovery of the past, the epiphany through which the whole of my late work became possible. It was a backward look, of course—the first of many love affairs in that direction—but it was a look in the mirror, too. No critic understood this at the time, and I was therefore attacked for being a ‘pasticheur’, chided for composing ‘simple’ music, blamed for deserting ‘modernism’, accused of renouncing my ‘true Russian heritage’. People who had never heard of, or cared about, the originals called ‘sacrilege’:  ‘The classics are ours. Leave the classics alone.’ To them all my answer was and is the same:  You ‘respect’, but I love.

I do not think any commentator or critic today would attack or chide in those same terms; Boston audiences versed in local early music performances might decry the sacrilege here, although I hope all would now see and accept the voice of Stravinsky blended with “Pergolesi.” There is a lot of charm and wit in this composition and it was a treat to hear the whole ballet performed in concert, not just the Suite. (I did feel the inherent absence of the dancers in this work, so the experience has now left me curious to see the ballet staged.) The music begins as a 20th-century concerto grosso; most especially in the Overture; this was mannered classicism which delays until the second-movement Serenata revealing its robes of a modernist cut, when the orchestration takes a decided turn towards the modern. As the work progresses, the hand of Stravinsky becomes more prominent, with violin harmonics picking up the flute line, or in the punctuation offered by cello harmonics. By 16th movement, Vivo, we are decidedly in the twentieth-century:  the contrabass takes a turn in the spotlight, and Edwin Barker rose to this challenge with aplomb. Karen Cargill, mezzo-soprano, displayed her velvety lower register in her soli (VII. Allegretto & XIII. Andantino), even as the first of them placed great demands on the vocalist with its wide-ranging leaps into the upper register (another moment of modern irruptions in this backward glancing music). Matthew Polenzani, tenor, brought a light touch to his solo lines, especially in the patter-song-like Presto (X.c). David Pittsinger, bass-baritone, subbed in at the last moment for the incapacitated Ildebrando D’Arcangelo; Pittsinger displayed a fabulous ability to blend colors with bassoon and viola in the Allegro (alla breve) solo. Finally, I would be remiss if I did not note that Elita Kang, sitting Concertmaster for this concert, dispatched the first violin solos with equanimity and Martha Babcock, sitting principal cello, brought great spirit to those lines in Pulcinella. There was much fun in this music, played with enjoyment. Throughout, the orchestra used a lushly romantic vibrato; I am sorry it was not more trim at the opening when the music cleaves more closely to the classical antecedents, and then had become more prominent as Stravinsky became ascendant. While it fragments the composition, it would also have brough out another level of fun and play in this work:  heightening the sense of the backward glance Stravinsky undertook as he embarked on his later, neoclassical phase, such a performance might strike some as even more sacrilegious, but it would foreground Stravinsky’s love affair with music of the classical period.

Following intermission, the Tanglewood Festival Chorus along with full orchestral forces and the vocal soloists took the stage for Haydn’s Mass in Time of War (1796). Composed on a symphonic scale, this mass combines Haydn’s astute instrumental writing with some lovely vocal parts, the music claiming as much attention as the text and format of the Mass. Sadly for me the declamation which begins the Kyrie eleison was hampered by the row of audience members seated in the Orchestra near the stage:  returning noisily to their seats well after the music had begun, they added a layer of distraction which the musicians on stage surely did not need.  Christe eleison, indeed. By the conclusion of the Kyrie, we could all muster our attention on the intended recipient:  the music emanating from the stage. Shame on the distraction; we could all benefit from time spent contemplating the combination of religion and militarism encoded in Haydn’s work. The presence of timpani lent a greater rhythmic presence to this work, as the drumbeats of war and the martial insistence on the beat mark out this Mass. The Tanglewood Festival Chorus, well-prepared by John Oliver, presented a fully rounded sound, as did Cargill, Polenzani, and Pittsinger in the vocal solo lines. The soloists were joined by Alexandra Coku, soprano, whose voice stood out from this texture. One interpretative choice did puzzle me:  the women of the chorus sang “Amen” at the end of the Gloria more as a sigh than as a conclusion to a prayer, which customarily has a degree of definitiveness to it (especially at his point in the text of the Mass). Wholly pleasurable, on the other hand, was Martha Babcock playing the cello solo lines in the Gloria; clearly written after Haydn had explored the soloistic possibilities of the cello, these passages are concerto-like moments in the context of the larger composition. Babcock played them with great sensitivity and the resulting music was gorgeously realized, a breath-taking glory in its own right. The Mass ended forcefully on pacem, a prayer and a hope for peace in time of war and a fittingly rousing conclusion to this work and the concert as a whole.

The concert repeats on the usual BSO schedule (Friday afternoon, Saturday and Tuesday nights).


Cashman Kerr Prince, trained in Classics and Comparative Literature, is now a Visiting Scholar in the Department of Classical Studies at Wellesley College.  He is also a cellist of some accomplishment, currently playing with the Brookline Symphony Orchestra.


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

  1. Cashman Kerr Prince, as usual, adds so much to a review. He hit the nail on the head by saying that Alexandra Coku’s soprano “voice stood out from this texture,” that of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus’s “fully rounded sound”; I would go further to say I found her voice shrill. And yes, Martha Babcock’s moments in the sun were wonderful and had me ruminating on the BSO’s increased sharing of her solo skills with us in the past few years. Substitute bass-baritone Pittsinger was also a treat. Prince was perhaps gentle with Karen Cargill; yes, she has a beautiful mellow low tone, but I think she had a bit of trouble with high notes. And who couldn’t love Polenzani?

    As for those seven people walking in after several bars of the music, proceeding in a parade across the center aisle, down the right aisle to the front, then placing themselves in rows two and three, as if there were plenty of time to settle themselves, was inexcusable. I too felt so sorry for the performers, not to mention us paying audience. Where are the days of Koussevitky? He would not allow people in late, not even at the break between movements! Perhaps the BSO management should be asked to be more diligent in enforcing a no-seating policy for late-comers?

    Comment by Bettina A. Norton — February 23, 2013 at 3:37 pm

  2. Toni Norton is right: The BSO has a nominal policy about late seating, but it is rarely,
    rather never, enforced. We have had people wander in front of us half-way through the
    slow introduction to Beethoven 4. Koussevitsky wasn’t being cranky, Volpe is being lax.

    Comment by Martin Cohn — February 23, 2013 at 8:59 pm

  3. Fwiw, the Tuesday night (last) performance was terrific, and TFC had just incredible entrances and exits and enunciation. Perfect playing throughout. Coku was sharp (pitch) only at the start, and Pittsinger settled in gorgeously by Haydn time. the rest, wow. No stragglers or rude folks. A superb performance; would really like to have a recording.

    Interesting that, as Haydn was in his big public and non-sly, non-cranky mode here, Stravinsky, sort of the Haydn of the 20th c, made up for it, with all his ‘I think I might try to trip you now’ and related tricks.

    Comment by David Moran — February 27, 2013 at 12:20 am

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Sorry, this comment forum is now closed.