in: Reviews

October 12, 2013

Admiring Adès

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The Boston Symphony Orchestra seems to have established a mutual admiration society with English composer/conductor Thomas Adès. The orcherstra presented a well-chosen program Thursday night, odd-looking, perhaps, on paper but with thought-provoking links among its component pieces, mainly between the inner two and outer two. Adès, especially, spared no effort and at the conclusion looked like an athlete ready for the showers.

We began with the well-loved concert staple of Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy’s Overture “The Hebrides” (also known as “Fingal’s Cave”). The orchestra’s near-continual rise and fall in this beautiful music vividly illustrated the restless North Atlantic Ocean without being so self-indulgent as to cause seasickness. The strings played their many roles with skill: silken in soaring melodies, precise and delicate in pianissimo rustling figures, and a plush foundation over which brass and woodwinds made colorful and dramatic interjections. In a performance such as this, one could hear why Richard Wagner, of all people, called it “one of the most beautiful works of music that we have” and described Mendelssohn as “a first-class landscape painter.”

As an iconoclast of American music, Charles Ives gave impetus to much later experimentation by others (not all Americans), and his Orchestral Set No. 2 seems a rich source. One is apt to forget that Ives had unremarkable origins as a church organist and son of a bandleader. However, his father George was also experimentally-minded, and Charles called him his principal musical influence. The three-movement work (“An Elegy to Our Forefathers”; “The Rockstrewn Hills Join the People’s Outdoor Meeting”; “From Hanover Square North, at the End of a Tragic Day, the Voice of the People Again Arose”) showed an impressive number of Ives’ musical traits: the frequent use of hymn-tunes, polytonality and polyrhythms, offstage ensembles playing (and singing) alternately as well as together with the main orchestra, quarter-tone tuning, incorporation of ragtime and jazz, etc. The BSO and Adès handled the many difficulties with assurance, even aplomb. The first movement was a somber, mysterious affair despite many appearances of the children’s hymn “Jesus Loves Me.” The second was a seemingly highly secular party-scene with much ragtime and jazz (even, to my ears, some pre-echoes of big bands!) but also using the hymns “Bringing in the Sheaves” and “Happy Day,” though the tune of the latter, appropriately enough, is used as well for the drinking song “How Dry I Am.” The orchestra clearly relished the opportunity to play kinds of music they rarely do. The final movement was inspired by Ives’ learning, at the end of a work day, of the torpedoing of the Lusitania in 1915 with great loss of life. The opening with offstage ensemble and Tanglewood Festival Chorus, singing a theme based on the Te Deum, was haunting. The texture gradually expanded, centering around the hymn “In the Sweet By and By”—the tune Ives had heard on a hurdy-gurdy with spontaneous singing by the crowds in Hanover Square, Manhattan, as they all learned of the sinking. This built to a great climax with the brass section thundering out the hymn over a complex, dissonant texture: busy commuters who, unusually, take the time to express their grief with untrained voices but the more movingly for that. There was a fairly quick dropping off of texture and dynamics in which a pair of theremins sounded just like a reed organ with muted strings drifting away.

We next had the rather infrequent privilege to hear a guest conductor in one of his own compositions, i.e., Adès’s Polaris, composed in 2010. The name, of course, refers to the North Star, the astral body by which mariners have navigated since time immemorial. The work is an example of the composer’s fondness of the “passacaglia principle” by which a seminal idea—in this case a pattern of chosen pitches in varying order—undergoes variations. In the course of the varying of pitch order certain notes get sustained and form something of melodic fragments. Though it’s hard for the listener to find something as constant as the North Star to latch onto—a melody, for instance—the process of expansion seems to be the guiding principle, and variation of orchestration, texture, and dynamics ensures that the work is rarely monotonous. Polaris is an apt companion to the Ives, too, in its multiple simultaneous tempi, a challenge that orchestra and conductor seemed to take in stride. Placing the work next to the Ives was a wise choice as the audience, having responded with heartfelt approbation to the earlier piece (and possibly recognizing its kinship with this one), did likewise here in a partial standing ovation

The Symphony in D Minor of César Franck made a moving conclusion to the concert. This was a “young man’s Franck Symphony” with outer movements, both marked Allegro non troppo, not overly constrained by the non troppo. However there were abundant moments of lovely reflection and nostalgia, particularly the second movement with its extensive solos for the English horn (whose inclusion, incredibly, was criticized by some of Franck’s fellow composers at the premiere). Robert Sheena played beautifully and movingly. The near-constant rise and fall of this music linked it with Mendelssohn’s overture, but the much more advanced chromaticism and rubato reminded us that it was written in the concluding years of the 19th century. Adès and the BSO were exemplary in both respects with impeccable tuning and unanimous ensemble. The finale was wonderfully celebratory even as it reunited themes from the brooding first movement and pensive second movement. A concert that covered a very large musical territory was a resounding success in every respect.

Geoffrey Wieting holds Bachelor’s degrees in organ and Latin from Oberlin College and a Master’s degree in collaborative piano from New England Conservatory. He is a freelance organist, collaborative pianist and vocal coach, and choir member at Trinity Church, Copley Square and in the Back Bay Chorale.

6 Comments

  1. Thank you for your excellent review and interesting points. I loved the reading of the Mendelssohn. I found the Ives performance revelatory, afterwards thinking, I’m so glad I’ve lived long enough to finally understand Ives (couldn’t have done it without Mr Ades’s conducting.

    The Ades piece was worth hearing, he clearly being a master of orchestration. Although I found some of the piece rather assaultive, I was pleased that the young people in the audience liked it.

    Which brings me to the Franck, a piece I have loved since hearing Bernstein conduct it when I was young. Mr Ades’s approach made the best case, I think, for including it on this program (at intermission, I wondered how on earth the Franck was to follow what we’d heard in the first half). And it’s charitable, and intriguing, of you to describe it as a young man’s performance (I shall have to think about that further). But I think here Mr Ades missed the boat, forgetting that the music is French, and treating it too aggressively. I left the hall thinking, “he relies too much on loudness and velocity to create emphasis, so the Franck didn’t ‘breathe’.”

    Comment by Joel Hencken — October 13, 2013 at 3:04 am

  2. I wondered why the stage was extended, as if for Mahler, with a wide open space between brass/percussion and horns/woodwinds (at least on Thursday night.) Any ideas?

    Comment by Martin Cohn — October 13, 2013 at 10:01 am

  3. I thought the Franck was played (on Sat) with a sense of urgency and excitement much like Munch played french music. The inner voices were more articulated than Munch might have made them but the overall effect was there. I was brought up on Munch as I was a student in Boston during his tenure. One must have been there or listen to his live recordings to know what his performances were like. The commercial versions are toned down a bit. Rightly or wrongly I have the Munch approach in my head and it remains my standard in this musical genre.

    Comment by Herbert Rakatansky MD — October 13, 2013 at 11:06 pm

  4. This was, indeed, an exciting evening of music … or, in my case, half of an exciting evening of music. It is my misfortune to be a subscriber to the Friday evening series, which ended at around 9:05 without a performance of the Franck because of the idiocy known as “Underscore Fridays.”

    I’ve put up with this nonsense because, a couple of decades ago, I snagged front row, second balcony center seats when the BSO began moving Friday afternoon concerts to Friday evenings. Up until a few years ago, the Friday concerts were, with a few exceptions, identical to the other subscription concerts. Then, several years ago, someone in the BSO programming office come up with the idea that starting concerts at 7 PM, having conductors discuss the works, performing a slightly shortened program (e.g., get rid of the opening piece), eliminating the intermission, and offering a reception afterwards with the performers and orchestra members would allow the BSO to reach an audience that had eluded it (i.e., a younger one).

    Things began to fall apart rather quickly: 7 PM was too early (and Boston traffic too wretched) to get performers and audience to Symphony Hall on time, in most cases conductors were unwilling to talk, and the costs of the reception seem to have strained the budget. So the concerts went back to 8 PM, musicians from the orchestra were recruited to say a few words before the concert (they’ve executed what has become a pointless task as well as it can be done, but this long ago became a tedious and pointless exercise), and the reception was eliminated.

    So, we are now left with a series that rests on the dubious assumption that playing less music and having the orchestra wear suits instead of tails will magically result in a larger and younger audience. The evidence on Friday suggests that this experiment has been an utter failure: the hall was embarrassingly empty (something in the neighborhood of 1/3 to 1/2 of the floor seats were empty and everything beyond the first row center seats in the second balcony was deserted). It would appear that a fair number of subscribers have opted not to accept the offer to enjoy half a concert for the same price as a full one.

    Stop this idiocy. Please.

    Comment by James Schmidt — October 14, 2013 at 9:46 am

  5. To James Schmidt: The hall was equally sparsely occupied on Thursday, when we did get a full measure of music. Strangely, the BSO website showed almost a sell-out at 12 noon on that day.???

    Comment by Martin Cohn — October 14, 2013 at 4:51 pm

  6. I was there on Thursday also and was very disappointed at the sparse attendance, especially in the balconies. Does the near sellout mean that subscribers decided not to attend? If so, that’s indeed a sad commentary on the audience for music in Boston. Even if the subscribers were there, it’s still regrettable that there were so few single-ticket buyers. (In any case, it lends credence to the notion that WCRB has to play mostly pre-WWI music if they want to retain an audience.)

    As for the show itself, the Mendelssohn and Franck were easy enough to take. I didn’t notice anything really spectacular in either performance, which is fine, but the foreshadowing of Gershwin, which a reviewer noted elsewhere, was striking. To me, however, it was the Ives and Adès which really made the concert worth the trek in from the wilds of Marblehead. The Ives was charming in the first piece and exhilarating in the second, as he anticipated the big band era. Then the “Hanover Square Station” was poignant and stirring. Kudos and “bravo” to Maestro Adès for programming this undeservedly neglected work — which I hope the BSO will play again reasonably soon. The maestro and orchestra certainly earned the cheers and sustained applause which brought the conductor back at least twice for a bow. The Ives work also prepared us in a way for the Adès. It seemed to me that Adès was in a sonic world akin to Ives’. Again, the applause for performers and composer was hearty and deserved. One unfortunate thing was that Maestro Adès was very sparing in acknowledging individual players (but there weren’t many big solos) or sections, and I only saw him shake hands with the concertmistress once. I guess he was never taught that bit of conducting etiquette.

    À propos Underscore, I second the motion to stop the project. I’ve never actually been to one, but I heard the Tanglewood Underscore concert of August 2 via Classical New England, including Michael Martin’s distressing attempt at stand-up comedy, with zero value as an introduction to the evening’s music. What was amazing and revealing is that in Mr. Martin’s opening words, he indicated that he had delivered an equally inane talk in Symphony Hall last Spring, and yet management must have wanted more of the same, since they brought him back for another go-round. I can only conclude that management does not take the business seriously either. While we’re at it, if management really wants to enhance the listening experience, they’ll bring back the pre-concert talks on Thursday and Saturday evenings. Or don’t they want to distract patrons from the well-stocked bars?

    Comment by Joe Whipple — October 15, 2013 at 11:55 am

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