in: Reviews

April 11, 2013

Spring and Death from BUSO

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Penelope Bitzas in Hidemith's "Lilacs" (Michael J. Lutch photo)

Penelope Bitzas in Hidemith’s “Lilacs” (Michael J. Lutch photo)

Last night’s “O Ever Returning Spring,” marking the Boston University Symphony Orchestra’s annual return to Symphony Hall, was a tightly integrated production—too tightly in some respects, as we will argue below. Based on the usual “Spring and Death” motif we have sometimes rued, this iteration was original, being specifically keyed to the commemoration of war dead, as well as to broader themes.

Let it never be said that Music Director David Hoose shies away from the difficult and recondite. Consider this program featuring: his own setting of a hymn tune with relevance to the rest of the program, the Ives “Decoration Day” movement from Four New England Holidays (a/k/a the Holidays Symphony), and, as the main event, Paul Hindemith’s When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d: A Requiem for Those We Love. Hoose conducted the BUSO and Symphonic Chorus, which had prepared under its conductor Ann Howard Jones.

In working out the background of Hoose’s setting for large orchestra and chorus of William Chaney Piggott’s hymn “For those we love within the veil,” we are indebted to the well-written and informative program note by BU DMA student Amy Lieberman. That this text was the source of Hindemith’s subtitle was known, but what was not known until 1997 was that the hymn-like melody that Hindemith used in the tenth section of his work was not his own, but rather was the tune to which this text was set in the 1940 edition of the Hymnal of the Protestant Episcopal Church of the United States, identifying the tune for Hymn 222 only as a “Traditional Jewish Melody.” Piggott’s text honored the dead of World War I, and Hoose reunited words and music as a prelude to the Hindemith.

What Hoose actually did was arrange the tune for the chorus, while the orchestra part, as he described it in the program notes, “rubs against and veils the voices.” Nice phrasing, but here’s the actual rub: although on the printed page all notes are equal, on a stage with the chorus arrayed at the back wall and a full orchestra in front of them, unless the composer and conductor are very careful, the veil can be very opaque indeed, to the point of becoming a wall. Hoose’s conception of the orchestra’s role was in effect to cover the hymn tune with graffiti, smudges and other effects whose colors and harmonies offset rather than enhance what the chorus is doing. Ives, in the “Thanksgiving” movement from the Holidays set (using here Ives’s term for a suite, as he was pretty ambivalent about calling this collection a symphony), managed this very effect quite adroitly, so that when the actual hymn tune entered, the chorus was in unison and could be heard well against the orchestra. Hoose plainly had Ives in mind while setting this piece, but oddly for an experienced conductor miscalculated the balances, and made it virtually impossible to make out the actual hymn tune. This is forgivable if it’s a very familiar one, but this one assuredly was not. For these imbalances we do not apportion any fault to the chorus or orchestra, whose singing and playing were exemplary.

We have one other bone to pick with Hoose over this piece—well, not over the piece as such, but over what he did with it. We noted immediately the homage to Ives in his conception and scoring, and in the sound of the orchestral part, but we became indignant when, without notice in the program and without a breath’s worth of pause, he segued directly to the Ives, as if they constituted a single piece. We don’t know whether Hoose was hitching himself to Ives’s wagon or suggesting that Ives’s masterpiece needed some kind of a prelude, but either way the effect was too gimmicky by half and not a nice thing to do to Ives, who remains America’s greatest composer. One can’t imagine, for example, a conductor daring to tack a nice little springtime hymn onto the first movement of the Pastoral Symphony or Brahms’s Second.

Hoose’s stunt having left us in a bit of a grumpy mood, you may wish to take our observations on the BUSO’s performance of “Decoration Day” with a grain of salt (we’ll supply the vinegar). The orchestra, as before, played well and responsively, but in the slow opening section we found the sonorities massed together in a way that obscured Ives’s complex polyphony. When the New England Conservatory’s NEC Philharmonia performed the entire Holidays set in December, we praised the clarity with which David Loebel and that orchestra rendered these details. While BUSO’s report was certainly a competent one, it suffered in comparison. The central march section of the movement was brisk and lively, as it should be, though not as bright in coloration as it could have been; and the slow coda was admirably quiet but could have been better sustained.

Hoose is one of those praiseworthy music directors happy to present his audiences with works outside the mainstream (an especially good attribute for someone conducting a conservatory orchestra, where many players might clamor for experience in the standard repertory), and to champion music he likes regardless of what critical consensus might be. In this instance he made a strong case for Hindemith’s Lilacs, the first of three major settings (the others being Roger Sessions’s from 1971 and George Walker’s from 1996) of Walt Whitman’s long poem reflecting on the death of Abraham Lincoln (on April 15, 1865, in case you’d forgotten the date) and the slaughter of the Civil War. Hindemith was commissioned to write this work by the choral conductor Robert Shaw in 1946 to commemorate the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt on April 12, 1945 and the slaughter of World War II. Hindemith had become an American citizen in 1946 and took the commission in great earnest. He produced what he considered to be his “American” masterpiece—an oratorio-sized work for baritone (performed Tuesday by James Demler), mezzo-soprano (Penelope Bitzas), chorus and orchestra on massive themes of loss and reconciliation. That it met with only lukewarm critical and popular success apparently rankled him no end. With an orchestral prelude and eleven substantial vocal sections, it presents serious musical argument on serious literary, philosophical, and emotional subjects. We first heard it back in the 1960s in the composer’s own recording with the New York Philharmonic; it has been recorded several times, but live performances are rare.

All that said, it remains only partially successful, and not at all American. There is a long history of European composers’ attempts to grapple with the cosmic scope of Whitman, notably in Vaughan Williams’s First Symphony (the Sea Symphony), Delius’s Sea Drift, and works by Britten, Weill and Hartmann. With the exception of Vaughan Williams, most of them really didn’t get it; by setting Whitman in their own customary ways, those composers produced diminished versions of what could have been achieved. This isn’t to say that American composers invariably do better: the best, as for example songs by Ernst Bacon, usually take smaller samples (though Adams’s The Wound Dresser is probably an exception), or, ironically, eschew the words entirely, as in Carpenter’s tone poem on Sea Drift). Hindemith’s Lilacs reminds us most of the Delius, which often dissipated Whitman’s elemental force in meandering lines and undirected harmonies. What is successful about Hindemith’s setting is in the places where it is solidly Hindemith—the marches in sections 3 and 10, the fugue in section 7 and in the “arioso” movements for the mezzo, which were oddly more lyrical than the nominal song sections for baritone. There are, thus, many effective parts in this piece, tethered to other sections much less compelling.

The performances on Tuesday were definitely not to blame for any of our dissatisfaction. Bitzas has a rich, succulent voice with a sultry lower register, moderate vibrato and excellent projection, with fine if not utterly crystalline diction. Her shared number with Demler, “Sing on! sing on, you gray-brown bird,” (in Hindemith’s setting, the mezzo takes the passages depicting the thrush, symbolizing for Whitman the mourning of the survivors) was one section where the music truly captured the spirit of the poem; the performers brought it out to perfection. Demler was a commanding presence, an almost prophetic one (no Whitmanesque mane and beard, alas) with marvelously pointed intonation, power, shapely phrasing and dynamic control. The orchestral accompaniment and the many purely orchestral passages were very well played. Hindemith was a great fan of rich brass sounds, and BUSO’s section rose to the occasion, as did solo flutist Alexandra Conway and clarinetist Xingxing Zhai (if the program listings tell us true). Hoose adopted reasonable, moderate tempi and brought out much of the richness of Hindemith’s counterpoint and coloration. While the orchestration, owing to the subject, was seldom razzle-dazzle brilliant, it was far from dull, and Hoose made the most of what there was.

David Hoose conducts BU Orchestra and Chorus with James Demler (Michael J. Lutch photo)

David Hoose conducts BU Orchestra and Chorus with baritone James Demler (Michael J. Lutch photo)

Vance R. Koven studied music at Queens College and New England Conservatory, and law at Harvard. A composer and practicing attorney, he was for many years the chairman of Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble.

2 Comments

  1. This is an excellent review. I caught the webcast and had similar complaints regarding the hymn, but wasn’t sure if it was a problem with the stream’s mix (which, otherwise, I found to be quite good).

    Comment by Dogfish — April 13, 2013 at 4:29 pm

  2. As a graduate student, I had the privilege of preparing a chorus for Robert Shaw in Hindemith’s “Lilacs” (as Shaw always called it). I think the work’s lack of popular success rankled Shaw (the commissioner) as much as it did Hindemith. Hindemith clearly had the Brahms Requiem in mind as a model — two soloists rather than four, text in the vernacular — and for Shaw the work was almost as great an achievement: he called it “a sweet piece” — a judgment shared by many performers who study it, but fewer concertgoers. Kudos to BU, David Hoose, & Ann Howard Jones for introducing their students to the work, and sharing it with the public.

    Comment by Steven Lipsitt — April 14, 2013 at 8:03 pm

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