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.