Summertime, and the Boston classical musical scene is elsewhere . . . . All the action has moved to the countryside and its numerous music festivals, leaving only a few hardy groups like the Landmarks Orchestra and Boston Midsummer Opera and a sprinkling of chamber performances to give our many tourists and city-bound something to hear. It was, therefore, no little relief to take in the Mercury Orchestra’s performance in blissfully air-conditioned Sanders Theater on July 20th. Moreover, this was no cotton-candy-for-the-mind program either, but two substantial and challenging pieces: Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and Rachmaninoff’s valedictory Symphonic Dances, under the baton of Mercury’s Music Director Channing Yu.
This being the centenary of Rite’s premiere, an event that many have claimed to mark the beginning of the Modern era in classical music, there have been some performances locally, including one coming up at Tanglewood, though not as many as one might have expected. It is noteworthy, then, that Mercury, as an amateur ensemble that only operates during the summer (just this one performance this year), should undertake this score that once gave palpitations to seasoned professionals (and may still do, considering the relative paucity of Boston-area performances). What impressed most about Yu’s reading of Rite was the sense of connection it engendered to Stravinsky’s two earlier ballets, Firebird and Petrushka, especially the latter. Not only the flashy orchestration descended from Rimsky-Korsakov (the stage was chock-a-block with players), but the folk-like melodies that play over brittle, static harmonies featuring bitonal edges. What made Rite revolutionary, therefore, was not a matter of kind but one of degree, flavored also by the novel rhythmic complexity of some sections and the pounding unresolved dissonances of others (though this sort of thing has a provenance going back to the Eroica Symphony).
But to begin at the beginning, the eerie bassoon solo that opens the work (from a Lithuanian folk tune), which so famously provoked titters and worse at the ballet premiere and Saint-Saëns’ angry exit from the 1914 concert premiere, was excellently rendered. So was the rhythmically jumpy “Dance of the Young Girls,” which was the strings’ first star turn. The orchestration being so brilliant and diverse, it’s hard to speak about individual contributors when everybody was so on top of his or her game (though we do have to mention the virtuoso contributions of the percussion section). While not always at the same level of polish we would expect from the BSO, this was still playing of a very high order indeed, well worth the risk Yu took in programming the difficult score. Our only reservations about the performance related to tempi and lines: Yu’s was a fairly conservative pace, by and large, which was not in itself a big problem, but in slower sections it led to a breakdown of overarching melodic lines, many of which—Stravinsky sometimes denied, but other times seems to have acknowledged—were derived from folk sources. With the success of this challenging piece under its belt, we wonder where Mercury might be headed in the future; suggestion: 2016 will be the centenary of Ives’s Fourth Symphony.
It seems almost absurd to think of an orchestra scaling down its forces for a Rachmaninoff orchestral work, but so Mercury did (save having to bring on some different instruments, like the harp, orchestral piano and most especially the alto saxophone) for the Symphonic Dances, op. 45. Stravinsky and Rachmaninoff were two of the most eminent composers to resettle in the US, and while the young Stravinsky’s ballet was a kind of intellectual invocation of the Russian past, the aged Rachmaninoff in 1941 used his last completed work to sum up the personally felt history of the much more recently and brutally abolished world in which the composer grew up. There are various autobiographical elements to the work as well, with quotes in the first movement from Rachmaninoff’s first symphony, which was a fiasco at its premiere, and in the third movement from his well-loved Vespers. The third movement also features, most often in rhythmic disguise until it emerges in propria persona as a cantus firmus, the opening motif from the traditional Dies Irae, a tune Rachmaninoff used many times as a symbol of death (in this case, paired with the Vespers tune—which uses intervals the inverse of the Dies Irae—in a conceptual dyad of death and resurrection)
While Stravinsky’s work was definitely commissioned and intended for a specific ballet performance, Rachmaninoff’s piece, dedicated to Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra (and written with its distinctive string-heavy sound in mind) was only notionally a choreographed work. Rachmaninoff did consult with Michel Fokine, the great choreographer who also worked for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes along with Nijinsky, who choreographed Rite, Fokine’s death in 1942 put an end to any possibility of having these pieces actually danced (it was not until 1980 that choreography was created for them). Yu’s direction definitely stressed the “symphonic” aspects of the three movements over the “dance” ones, and he achieved an admirable balance among the orchestral forces, with the strings especially lush and lovely. The second movement, marked Tempo di Valse, was a bit problematic, in that it just didn’t convey enough of the spooky sound it deserves. Still, this was a highly satisfying performance of a stunning Rachmaninoff masterpiece.