in: Reviews

April 13, 2013

Knussen Conducts Knussen


Oliver Knussen conducts Pinchas Zukerman and the BSO (Stu Rosner photo)

Oliver Knussen conducts Pinchas Zukerman and the BSO (Stu Rosner photo)

Last night Oliver Knussen led the Boston Symphony Orchestra in four local premieres, two of which were his own compositions. Before the Underscore Friday concert, cellist Mickey Katz welcomed the audience and joked about the “panic” the musicians felt as they presented repertoire new to themselves. Panic was not evident in performances of Miaskovsky, Knussen, or Mussorgsky-Stokowski.

The concert opened with Nikolai Miaskovsky’s Symphony No. 10 in F, op. 30 (1928). Written in a single movement and lasting some 18 minutes, this work is scored for “the deafening roar of four trumpets, eight horns, and so on,” to quote the composer’s own quip. The symphony both is and is not programmatic, rendering in music Pushkin’s poem, “The Bronze Horseman.” Which is to say that though the narratives line up in many particulars, the composer was resistant to acknowledge any direct, point-by-point comparisons. Still the flood of the Neva river finds its parallel in the flood of notes; Evgeny’s wife is heard in the solo first violin; the brazen horseman’s coming to life is expressed by a descending figure and accompanying forte orchestral burst; the horseman’s maddening pursuit of Evgeny finds voice in rhythmic cells rumbling in the low strings; and so on. The work begins with a bass-heavy soundscape—a churning, chromatic line in bass and cello set the stage for the ensuing turmoil. This expands into a loud wall of notes, at times propulsive, at times merely oppressive (the composer’s assessment of Czar Peter II). The musical idiom, like Pushkin’s poem, is manifestly Russian. Harmonically and (to a lesser extent) melodically, this is a Romantic composition; the organization and structure, though, are Modernist, with ideas developed in a more compressed fashion. The symphony ends bleakly. I did not hear any final ennobling of the suffering lover or a release from torment (unless it be that of the musicians, liberated from the dark world Pushkin wrote and Miaskovsky composed). The performance was tight and colorful. I do not have an overall sense of this performance, but do retain episodic impressions of Miaskovsky’s programmatic narration.

Pinchas Zukerman took to the stage before reduced forces of the BSO for Oliver Knussen’s Violin Concerto, op. 30 (2002). In three movements (Recitative – Aria – Gigue) played attaca and lasting some 17 minutes; in the composer’s own words, it treats the violinist as a tightrope walker, and it oscillates between expansive melody and burlesque. The dual nature of the piece I heard, but I would not have thought of a tightrope walker had not those comments been incorporated into the program note. The composition begins and ends on a high harmonic “e” but the first movement, especially, draws on the richly resonant resources of the violin’s lower and middle registers. The sparse orchestration, used mainly for dramatic effects, gives this music a filmic quality as close-ups follow exterior, narrative shots. Knussen uses rhythmic modifications, especially in the Gigue; to my mind this recalled Britten’s play with tempo and meter, a re-thinking of the phrasal units and the unsettling of expectations related to the ictus. In the Gigue, too, the virtuosic pyrotechnics of the soloist come to the fore, with left-hand pizzicati, double-stops, and rapid shifts in musical character. The music retained a lyrical quality despite the flash and dazzle. Zukerman gave a solid and impassioned reading of this work (of course), and cloaked the whole in a lush tone and solid, eminently skillful playing. Speaking of the composition, I would have liked more of a return to the opening recitative with its full-bodied musings before work’s close on the inherent thinness of the harmonic note.

Following intermission, soprano Claire Booth arrived on stage for Knussen’s Whitman Settings, op. 25A (1991-92). Taking four texts from Walt Whitman—“When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer,” “A Noiseless Patient Spider,” “The Dalliance of the Eagles,” & “The Voice of the Rain”—Knussen created a musical context which interacts to heighten and contrast the poetry. The texts are difficult to sing (and hardly easy to parse); the music adds a further layer of complexity. The third setting is, perhaps, the most accessible of them, with the soaring of the eagles represented in the rising pitch of the music, the A-B form depicting the contrast between cavorting and serene sailing, and picture painting bringing the meaning of the words into the music. Booth demonstrated a broad vocal range and responded to the call for different colors, and effects. Unfortunately, substantial balance issues hampered my understanding and appreciation; from where I sat (orchestra right, a dozen rows from the stage), the singer was easily and often overpowered by the orchestra. I hope this was a localized problem. I regret that it distracted my concentration from the composition at hand.

The fourth and final work was Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, not in Ravel’s famous orchestration but rather Leopold Stokowski’s from 1939. The music remains highly familiar while being startlingly different. The themes are distributed to different orchestral sections, making for a different palette of colors and timbres. I found this version richer in strings, darker in color, and generally more introspective at slower tempos. Whether these are true aspects of the Slavic character to be found in this music, as Stokowski held, I cannot say. I could not help but think Stokowski prepared this for the fabled Philadelphia Orchestra strings and their hallmark string sounds. I also cannot fathom why Stokowski left out “Tuileries” and “Limoges”. Altogether though, this is a fascinating version of Mussorgsky’s music, more subdued than Ravel’s, while remaining playful and exciting. It deserves more frequent airing, if only to keep the Mussorgsky Pictures fresh (for musicians and audiences alike). I once heard the Mussorgsky-Ravel version of Pictures performed at the Hollywood Bowl with fireworks; the Stokowski transcription would never hold up to an outdoor fireworks display. Rather, this version keeps the pictures in the museum and invites the audience into the exhibition. Chickens still disport in their shells, and Baba-Yaga’s hut still moves about on chicken legs. Now, though, we are invited to reflect on these musical portraits, to ruminate on canvases where the colors are not the vibrant ones of animated cartoons but a palette more worthy of an Old Master. The augmented string sections of the BSO effectively brought these lush soundscapes to life.

This concert repeats Saturday night at 8pm.

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.


  1. Miaskovsky’s tenth symphony would have made a wonderful score for a 1940s movie, one with suspense and dramatic tensions by the carload. Our small but frequent-concert-going crowd enjoyed the Knussens, but Mr. Prince is right on about the balance issues of the first song in Knussen’s Whitman Settings: in fact, the beautiful interpretive singing of Claire Booth was also almost inaudible throughout the entire song, from our seat in balcony front, right. The Stokowski arrangement of Pictures was a sheer delight — all that highlighting of the brass and Svoboda’s wonderful bassoon work.

    Comment by Bettina A. Norton — April 13, 2013 at 4:46 pm

  2. Where I sat — 2nd balcony — Clare Booth was also inaudible.

    I do disagree about the Stokowski “Pictures..”. It made me think of a circus band at times, and an operetta at others. LS was known for the dramatic, so there are no surprises. But I did think that Knussen made things worse.

    My feeling is that the orchestra does not like Knussen. There were, after all, two of his own compositions on the program, and yet the orchestra barely was able to yawn at the end of each. The Mussorgsky was mailed in. Sure, it’s tough to get enthused about an old chestnut, but the playing just didn’t have energy.

    Comment by Jack Walsh — April 13, 2013 at 7:33 pm

  3. Perhaps so but then why was the audience on its feet in a standing ovation? I would add this Mussorgsky version was anything but an old chestnut and that in fact neither it or any of the other works had been played by the BSO before and if yawning produces performances like we heard I’ll take them any day of my life. From my vantage point Ms. Booth was not only audible but glorious against Knussen’s cosmic tapestry. Then how one assumes the orchestra does not like Mr. Knussen seems a bit presumptuous unless Mr. Walsh is a multiple mind reader.

    Comment by Peter Barkley — April 14, 2013 at 9:11 pm

  4. The audience these days is ALWAYS “on its feet” for an ovation (note: that’s “its,” not “their”; and one can assume that those enthusiasts, being on their feet, are not standing). They are afraid, we presume, to seem lacking in sophisticated, musically literate, appreciation of whatever. So that means nothing. Perhspa my hearing was obstructed by sound trying to travel in a direct line from singer, through (infeasibly) the conductor, to me. But people who were not so hampered later reported the same problem — again, predominantly in the first lovely piece. Thank God the music calls for a lower volume register in the delightful, poignant ending, in which the poet simply gazes with wonder at the stars. We did hear that. And it was lovely.

    Comment by Bettina A. Norton — April 14, 2013 at 9:40 pm

  5. Peter Barkley’s comment would be more useful if he specified his seat location. I can’t make
    sense of Ms. Norton’s remark about how being on one’s feet does not constitute standing.

    Comment by Martin Cohn — April 14, 2013 at 9:58 pm

  6. I think Toni meant to suggest that her fellow commentors should use singular pronouns for collective nouns. Dunno about the rest.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — April 14, 2013 at 11:00 pm

  7. I know she meant that (and singular verb forms as well;) upon rereading, I believe she didn’t intend
    the “not” before “standing.” Correct, Toni?

    Comment by Martin Cohn — April 15, 2013 at 8:11 am

  8. Correct; the “not” should have been deleted in the rewriting I did (too hastily). What this phrase in my posting meant is, that if one is on one’s feet one, already is standing, unless one is levitating (i. e. there’s no need for the additional phrase). And yes, the use of the singular was an in-house jab at Lee for arguing with me over using singular verbs with collective nouns, or names of groups like I Trio Solisti. It IS a great group. Pax! We did have fun.

    Comment by Bettina A. Norton — April 15, 2013 at 8:24 am

  9. If the URL of this site ended in .uk instead of .com. the editor would likely automatically change any singular verb used with a collective noun to the plural.
    Although I no longer believe in prescriptive grammatical “commands”, perhaps using the plural for collective nouns is a practice that should be encouraged here as well.
    Also, RE: standing ovations, I’ve changed my mind. I used to sit smugly while others around me were standing (on their feet?)if the performance didn’t approach some Platonic ideal, but now I think that if I have really enjoyed a performance, I should let the performers know as enthusiastically as I can. I think this is especially important when I attend a good performance by conservatory students.

    Comment by edente — April 15, 2013 at 11:20 am

  10. By the way, at this same performance I was sitting in the first row, just below the soloists in the VC and the Whitman settings.
    1. During the applause call back after the VC, Mr. Zukerman turned to Mr. Knussen and said, “Sorry about that.” I don’t suppose the comment was audible beyond the first row. I don’t know what he was referring to. Any ideas? I suppose that only the composer, soloist, and, perhaps, the musicians, would know if he had messed something up in the piece.
    2. Even for me, directly below Ms. Booth, parts of the Whitman settings were inaudible, but fewer than for those farther back in the audience, I guess.

    Comment by edente — April 15, 2013 at 11:29 am

  11. To edente- BMInt’s policy on collective nouns is flexible. By default we treat them as singular, but when the context is referring to individuals within a group, plural verbs and pronouns make more sense.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — April 15, 2013 at 1:03 pm

  12. To Lee: My sentiments exactly! Which would you choose: … the platoon fixed its/their bayonets?
    … the clergy showed its/their reverence? … the cast has memorized its/their parts?

    Comment by Martin Cohn — April 15, 2013 at 3:06 pm

  13. Can we puhleeze not get into usage wars unless utterly fascinating, arcane, and related to music? (And in-house last-word jabs, z-z-z-z.) The singular/plural thing has been sensibly — flexibly, as Lee puts it — settled in practice for some time. Typos and similar corrections can be sent to him privately so they can be fixed without taking up comment space.

    Comment by David Moran — April 15, 2013 at 6:22 pm

  14. David Moran makes a point worth considering, but I wonder if those of us who write things enjoy grammar too much to just let things figuratively slide when a metaphorical button is proverbially pushed.

    Anyway — pace Mr. Moran — I can’t resist pointing out that in Martin Cohn’s third example the grammatical number of the verb is implicit in that of the pronominal adjective, i.e., “the cast has memorized its” or “the cast have memorized their.” People might say, “The cast has memorized their,” but IMO they shouldn’t ought to.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — April 15, 2013 at 10:24 pm

  15. This has nothing to do with the discussion up to now, but I’ve noticed something during the past few BSO concerts that has significantly improved the concert experience. The ushers now go through the hall before the concert begins and push down all the seats that are unoccupied. This makes a significant difference. Now there are many fewer falling seat flaps (or whatever they are called) to ruin a quiet passage in the music. This noise had been most annoying, and now it has practically (that should be in italics) disappeared. To the ushers: little things do mean a lot. Thanks.
    (Now please don’t tell me that they have been doing it for years and I hadn’t noticed before.)

    Comment by edente — April 15, 2013 at 11:54 pm

  16. BSO ushers have been doing that for some time, maybe not years.

    >> IMO they shouldn’t ought to.

    Joe W, that is a nice word play, almost, but everyone sensitively literate sees the supposed contradiction in has/their — and has for years. Believe me, it’s long since settled in speech, and many places in print. ‘Their’ is no longer plural but all-purpose. Fight it all we want, it is. Yaaaawn and yay; please let us drop it, as I suggested earlier. Lee’s flexibility (meaning also sometimes going by ear, that is, sonically) attitude is the right one. Everyone can please put their blue pencils down. Etc.

    Comment by david moran — April 16, 2013 at 1:32 am

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