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The BSO, Section by Section


“Musicians without Conductor” was the theme last night at Symphony Hall. Building on a program offered last season, members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra presented chamber music of Britten, Mozart, and Dvořák as a way to showcase sections of the orchestra and give individual players the opportunity to introduce themselves. The evening concluded with the full orchestra in Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra under a conductor.

This concert was dedicated “to all those affected by the bombings that took place during Monday’s Boston Marathon, especially the injured and the families who lost loved ones in this tragic event, all of whom are welcome to attend the concert as guests of the BSO.” I do not know how widely announced this offer was; I only saw the announcement on the BSO website Thursday afternoon as I was looking for updated information about parking and access. Cathy Basrak, Assistant Principal Viola and a marathoner, welcomed all at the start of the concert and talked about music-making being one response to violence (and quoting the now-widely circulating words of Leonard Bernstein, “This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.”).  I think we could all wish this offer had been more widely publicized; from the number of empty seats, I do not think they had many takers. I also note that the marathoners among the musicians swapped out concert black tops for Boston Marathon t-shirts and jackets for the concluding Britten.

The concert opened with Benjamin Britten’s Fanfare for St. Edmundsbury for three trumpets. It was composed in 1959 for a “Pageant of the Magna Carta” at the Abbey of Bury St. Edmunds, the site of a meeting of English lords that led to King John’s signing of the Magna Carta in 1215 and so submitting to that check on the power of the British monarchy. Britten calls for three trumpets, “placed as far apart as possible even if the performance is indoors,” as Kirzinger writes, and the trumpets are in the keys of F, C, and D. Each trumpet presents a solo line one after the other, before all three come together at the end in a polytonal chorale ending in the key of D. Benjamin Wright announced the first volley from the first balcony, house left in the key of F, a slow and stately melody in 2/2 meter. Thomas Siders gave the response from first balcony, house right, in the key of C, 6/8 meter, faster and recalling a jig. Thomas Rolf, from the stage, sounded the third theme in the key of D, which is more martial in character. This structure gives the piece a raucous quality, but voices in discord unite in the end. All three trumpeters delivered a committed and exciting performance.

The second work was Mozart’s Serenade no. 11 in E-flat, K. 375, for two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, and two horns. This familiar five-movement composition is structured like a small symphony; it is also not often heard here (only previously offered by the BSO on 6 April 1895). Written as a “spec” piece to get the Emperor’s attention (and musical commissions), it began as a sextet; John Ferrillo and Amanda Hardy, oboe, were happy that Mozart added oboe parts before the serenade was finished. William R. Hudgins and Michael Wayne, clarinet, together with Richard Svoboda and Suzanne Nelsen, bassoon, Richard Sebring and Rachel Childers, horn, rounded out the ensemble. Those assembled brought deftness to the Allegro finale, and throughout perfectly captured the gentleness in this serenade.

Dvořák’s Serenade in E for strings, op. 22 came third, performed by at least half of the players in the orchestra’s string sections.  Again a five-movement work, this one is structured differently, beginning Moderato, then a Tempo di valse, building to a middle Vivace movement then calming to a Larghetto and finishing with an Allegro vivace. This early work of Dvořák is suffused with a Brahmsian Romanticism, which the musicians of the BSO brought to lush, colorful life.

Although the concert started at 8 p.m., these three works brought us to intermission at 9:30. When we re-convened, the second half began with Michael Tippett’s “Præludium” for brass, bells, and percussion (1962). Trumpeter Ben Wright, speaking by way of introduction, highlighted the gorgeous melodic lines and the alternation between the chorale—stately and dissonant—and the faster section—contrapuntal and scampering; he sees in this music a reflection of Tippett’s experience as a conscientious objector during World War II. Tippett scored this præludium for muted and unmuted brass, with a great variety of colors and a wide dynamic range; the musicians brought this to beautiful life as they presented a captivating rendition of this musical intersection of a march with a meditation.

By now it was 10:15 pm, a not-infrequent time for the end of concerts, and the listed approximate end-time for this one. The full orchestra took the stage for Benjamin Britten’s The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra (Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Henry Purcell), op. 34 (1946) under conductor was Andris Poga. Assistant Conductor to the BSO as of this season, he is already a star in his native Latvia. From opening Theme:  Allegro maestoso e largamente, through Variations A through M (each giving the melody to, and highlighting, a different section of the orchestra), to the concluding Fugue:  Allegro molto, the music is quintessentially Britten, challenging in the details but skillfully combined into a satisfying aggregate. The theme by Purcell comes from incidental music to a play entitled “Abdelazar, or The Moor’s Revenge;” Britten’s transformation of this theme was last heard at Tanglewood in 1983, and before that in subscription concerts in 1955 and 1962. This music, I think, suffers from the popular title’s reference to young children; as an act of musical revision and adaptation, Britten’s Variations and Fugue stand alongside Hindemith’s Symphonic Metamorphoses. Both composers turn older music (Hindemith uses themes by Carla Maria von Weber) into a revelation of new colors, new textures, new soundscapes. I am grateful for the opportunity to hear Britten’s Guide live and to re-think it’s place both in his career and in the musical canon; like Leonard Bernstein, Benjamin Britten was smart enough not to talk down to young people and there is a lesson we all can learn, musicians and audience alike.

The audience received the Britten warmly and enthusiastically. I am reminded that this is a crowd that goes to hear the big, dramatic gestures of a symphony orchestra and seems less comfortable, less familiar, with the conventions and canons of chamber music. Listening to chamber music is a different experience; it is also usually a more intimate one than the cavernous space of Symphony Hall provides.

Along with the music, there were speeches. Bassoonist Suzanne Nelsen give a charming set of remarks about her career in music and what it means to her, along with a couple comments on the Mozart Serenade. Haldan Martinson, Principal Second Violin, spoke at some length before the Dvořák; he discoursed about the liberation, excitement, and challenges of orchestral musicians playing chamber music without a conductor. Ben Wright, Trumpet, gave brief and witty remarks before the Tippett. I realize this concert aimed to showcase all sections of the orchestra, but I am not sure why we had these three speeches.  I understand that Cathy Basrak spoke from her heart and in the depths of turbulent emotion; those opening remarks were added in light of recent events. I do not begrudge her those comments in the slightest.  The others, however, were planned a couple weeks (at least) in advance; the connections among all three left me puzzled. To overstate my reaction:  I left Symphony Hall wondering  the words were preparing us for the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s future as a band without a conductor or an artistic direction (especially Martinson’s lengthy lecture). Is this the message the BSO wished to convey? These comments, plus the set-up time between pieces, and the array of lengthy works on the program, made for a long evening, not all of it musical and not all satisfying or appropriate to the circumstances.

The concert repeats Saturday and Tuesday the 23rd at 8 p.m. The Friday afternoon concert has been postponed until next Friday the 26th at 1:30 p.m.

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.


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

  1. It’s nice to have people other than or in addition to the first chairs playing in small groups, but the problem on Thursday is that there was just too much. The Britten and Tippett pieces were fine, but I found the Mozart and Dvorák a bit too long in context — too bad they couldn’t have showcased themselves with something a bit shorter.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — April 20, 2013 at 7:39 pm

  2. The speeches were apparently shorter and fewer on Saturday night – the program ended around 10:20, I think – so don’t let the timing deter you from enjoying a delightful concert Tuesday night. The performances were exemplary, especially the Brittens and the Dvořák Serenade, which called to mind last season’s galvanizing account of the Tchaikovsky. As one might expect from the BSO, the strings lifted this concert into the sublime…

    Comment by nimitta — April 21, 2013 at 11:49 am

  3. There were times when a conductor might have been a good idea: there were some bits of untidiness, and the occasional moment when balances or a phrase’s shape might have been improved. Nevertheless, there was much to be gained. The best playing was very free and imaginative. Loudness was much more present, whether because of the absence of extra bodies on stage, or a restraining presence on the podium. That could have turned into coarseness, but instead it suggested a much more freely-exhaling group.

    I couldn’t help thinking that if training were the priority (and that obviously hasn’t been necessary with this year’s BSO), it would be better to put the end of this season at the beginning. Have the conductorless concert to force concentration, the Mahler 4 to integrate sections with soloists, and then Schubert 9 to combine the ultimate of discipline with flexibility.

    Comment by Camilli — April 21, 2013 at 1:30 pm

  4. I’m afraid the reviewer can’t face the music.The problem was not chamber sized forces in Symphony Hall or even the bits and pieces approach of the programming.The problem was the aesthetic character of the pieces.K.375 is in the running for most boring composition by Mozart; entirely predictable development sections with low excitement/interest features overall, elevator music before the elevator. (Players are always making this mistake with Mozart: just because it is fun to play and competently composed doesn’t mean it is worth hearing.) The Dvorak serenade is barely competent as music; slush,mush with unintelligent bridge work between banal themes,an embarrassment for a composer, except this is Dvorak and what do you expect?
    After this the Britten seemed like-and is, a aural vision of musical intelligence.

    Comment by Joh Collins — April 22, 2013 at 3:34 pm

  5. We heard the performance on 26 April that replaced the one canceled on 19 April. The execution was
    brilliant, and the selection was apt: Except for the Britten Variations, where do you get to hear
    such pieces? Not in chamber-music recitals, not in symphony concerts.

    But spoken introductions are a trial. They are awkward for the speakers, and for us hearers.
    They cost too much time in an already long program. We don’t want to be charmed by musicians but
    by their music. There seems to be a movement afoot to “rescue” classical music by making it more
    personal; that doesn’t work for us.

    Comment by Martin Cohn — April 27, 2013 at 9:01 am

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