IN: Reviews

Britten Rarity From NEC


Quan Yuan (file photo)
Quan Yuan (file photo)

Quan Yuan was something to hear on Wednesday night as he played Benjamin Britten’s Violin Concerto No. 1 with the NEC Philharmonia in Jordan Hall. The performance was part of the Britten centennial celebration at NEC, and it was a welcome chance to become acquainted with this piece and with this soloist.

Yuan, the winner of NEC’s most recent concerto competition, and already the holder of a pretty substantial performance resume, was greeted with shouts of “bravo” from the balcony before even playing a note. But he projected a quality of humble assuredness through his stage presence that carried over well into his playing. This is a steely, serious, concerto with long stretches of stasis from which surprising moments and colors suddenly pop with chilling effect. The first movement has a lyrical bent but it’s built on a deeply uneasy foundation. The second movement is a scherzo with interesting flips and exchanges between violin and ensemble and with beautiful, unusual, orchestrational choices. The passacaglia finale is monumental, verging on the grotesque, and it’s hard to say if the ending is happy or sad. Either way, it gets under your skin and into your bones.

Yuan roamed over the spooky terrain with a deep tone and moments of flash at just the right spots. Not just technically pristine, he also seemed to find a good mesh with his fellow students in the orchestra and to forge a strong interpretive connection with Hugh Wolff on the podium. This concerto might have been a special programming request for the centennial, but hopefully it will stay in Yuan’s repertoire. He suits it well.

The second half of the program was dedicated to orchestral selections from Berlioz’s Romeo et Juliette, a terrible piece of music, especially when presented without its choral movements as it was on Wednesday. To be sure, the orchestra sounded excellent under Wolff’s baton as they tore through the combat of Montagues and Capulets, a ball, the famous love scene, Queen Mab’s scherzo, and the final deaths in the tomb – but no favors can save this music from itself. Berlioz may not be known for subtlety, but must he always seize on the most literal musical treatment of a dramatic moment? Is he constitutionally compelled to avoid subtext and nuance at all costs?

Shakespeare deserves better. (And has received better from Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev, and Bernstein.) Even projected titles explaining the unseen action, like silent movie cards without the film, didn’t help this piece to sustain interest. Every movement contained a surfeit of dead space, and the bland and oddly fragmented lines never coalesced to take flight or impress on the memory. You would think that anything based on Romeo and Juliet would come prepackaged to tug the heartstrings or at least make you feel something. But, curiously enough, it was the purely abstract music on this program—the Britten Concerto—that felt truly moving and alive.

Ed. Note: The last paragraph was amended.

Benjamin Pesetsky is a Cambridge-based composer who’s recently been in residence at the Banff Centre and the Hambidge Center. Before that he attended Bard College where he studied with Joan Tower and George Tsontakis and earned a B.M. in composition and a B.A. in philosophy.


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

  1. To be frank, I am becoming increasingly disappointed with the self-absorbed tone of reviewers in these columns. I made a comment on Mark Devoto’s obsession with the gestures and movements of conductors, after which he wrote a lengthy response tying himself further in knotted contradiction. Now we have a totally subjective comment from Mr Pesetsky proclaiming this piece by Berlioz as “a terrible piece of music”. I have never heard Mr Pesetsky’s music, however, I have heard Richard Wagner’s who, 20 years after hearing, and being profoundly moved by Romeo and Juliet, gave Berlioz a score of Trstan and Isolde with the the message “To the dear and great author of Romeo and Juliet, from the grateful author of Tristan and Isolde.” If we have to be subjected to subjective opinion, I am putting my money on Wagner.

    Comment by Philip Johnson — December 13, 2013 at 7:35 am

  2. An objective fact: the Britten was breathtaking while the Berlioz was simply dull, despite a good performance. Does that let us draw conclusions about the score itself? I think so. As for Wagner, well, I side with Brahms.

    Comment by Benjamin Pesetsky — December 13, 2013 at 11:24 am

  3. “An objective fact: the Britten was breathtaking while the Berlioz was simply dull, despite a good performance” Fact is fact. Opinion is objective or subjective. Your statement of opinion that “this is a terrible piece of music”, is, in my objective opinion, subjective. Not fact.

    Comment by Philip Johnson — December 13, 2013 at 12:28 pm

  4. A critic’s job isn’t simply to give the who, what, when, why, how, and to say which notes were out of tune. When I hear something that leaves me completely cold, that calls for comment. Of course this perception is based in my inner subjective experience as a listener (what else do we have to go on?) – but I have to assume, as a fairly normal individual, that it is also reflective of the experiences of many of my fellow human beings in the audience. The review tries to capture something of that shared experience, and to draw some qualitative judgments from it, while not denying the possibility of other views or standards of judgment.

    Comment by Benjamin Pesetsky — December 13, 2013 at 1:52 pm

  5. With a degree in philosophy, Pesetsky doesn’t need a lecture on objective vs subjective. Who wants an objective review anyway? A better question- should he have elaborated more on his dismissal of the Berlioz work?

    Comment by denovo2 — December 13, 2013 at 1:56 pm

  6. The first half of this concert, occupied by the Britten and Mr. Yuan’s astonishing violin playing, was a fascinating, thrilling, sometimes chilling adventure offering a feast for the senses and intellect alike. The remarkable performance of this work certainly elevated its merits as a piece of repertoire; however, I could see it potentially falling flat in the hands of uncommitted forces. As for the Berlioz, I was so disappointed and frankly bored by it that I found myself wishing I had left at intermission.

    Comment by Anonymous Audience Member — December 13, 2013 at 3:39 pm

  7. I would disagree with denovo2 – and also Mr Pesetsky. First denovo2, clearly anyone who refers to a fact as objective, is living in the same tortological realm as folk who talk about true facts. Plainly ridiculous. And Mr Pesetsky is entitled o his opinion on how he is or is not moved or provoked by a work of art by a great composer. However, to refer to this piece, one which clearly did move some of the greatest composers of all time, as ” a terrible piece”, may be more of a reflection on the reviewer than Berlioz. Just sayin’

    Comment by Philip Johnson — December 13, 2013 at 5:15 pm

  8. For cold, hard, facts, try the police blotter.

    As for Herr Wagner, I don’t take too seriously the opinions of a guy whose main claim to fame is the creation of the fantasy fiction nerd-refuge for the tweedy over-fifty set. (Not to mention that his views on some other topics make it problematic to trot him out as the arbiter of good taste.) Just sayn’

    Comment by Benjamin Pesetsky — December 13, 2013 at 7:08 pm

  9. Mr Pesetsky, this is hard to say, but your dismissal of Wagner, and silly comments about Berlioz make you sound blinkered and really not very bright. There, I said it.

    Comment by philip johnson — December 13, 2013 at 7:27 pm

  10. The tone of this string is getting incivil and will be closed if insults continue.
    The publisher.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — December 13, 2013 at 7:35 pm

  11. Duly noted, thanks for writing in.

    Since these comments have gone off on a tangent, I’d like to reaffirm my kudos to the orchestra, Mr. Yuan, and Mr. Wolff for their performance before signing off. The question of the quality of repertoire is secondary to the importance of acknowledging the fine artistry on stage.

    Comment by Benjamin Pesetsky — December 13, 2013 at 7:41 pm

  12. Thank you. I am suitably admonished and I am sure Mr Pesetsky would wish to add his apology

    Comment by philip johnson — December 13, 2013 at 7:43 pm

  13. I’ve never seen Britten’s Op. 15 billed as a “Violin Concerto No. 1” before. As if there were a No. 2. There isn’t.

    There is no such word as “incivil.”

    Nor “tortological” either. I’m assuming it was “tautological” that was meant.

    Attention, everybody. Things like this lower the tone of the joint!

    Comment by Richard Buell — December 14, 2013 at 12:35 am

  14. The billing of the concerto as “Violin Concerto no. 1” is due to NEC: The program notes just call it Concerto, but the program calls it Concerto no. 1.

    Comment by Sandrine Leduc — December 14, 2013 at 8:10 am

  15. According to Webster, incivil is a premium word, “This word doesn’t usually appear in our free dictionary, but the definition from our premium Unabridged Dictionary is offered here:

    Full Definition of INCIVIL
    : not civil : rude, barbarous ”

    Only the best for BMInt…

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — December 14, 2013 at 9:15 am

  16. I believe Mr. Johnson’s “tortological” was intentional, though somewhat insulting. It clearly refers to the logical incapacities of tortoises. Though the biblical “voice of the turtle” is really the voice of the turtledove, tortoises are a whole other matter. They are notorious for speaking illogically whenever they deign to speak. The great tortoises of the Galapagos Islands are the only exception, I believe.

    Comment by Alan Levitan — December 14, 2013 at 10:49 am

  17. I am afraid I must dispute Mr. Levitan on the derivation of “tortological”, which is one of the best non-words I have ever encountered. I assume it derives from “tort”, the base meaning of which is “wrong”, on the model of “tautology”, the base meaning of which is “same-word”. Thus we have a wrong word whose meaning is “wrong-word”. How can this be improved on ?

    I hope this post has done something to raise the tone of this thread, and that we may have less disparagement of tortoises. Some of my best friends are tortoises.

    Comment by SamW — December 14, 2013 at 11:54 am

  18. By the way, the OED has four definitions for incivil, all of them obsolete. That must be why it’s a premium word; it’s from a rare old vintage, only to be uncorked on select occasions.

    The best and oldest definition is “not of the rank of a free citizen”.

    Thy father vas ane mecanyc tailȝour discendit of inciuile pure pepil.

    – The Complaynt of Scotland, 1549

    Comment by SamW — December 14, 2013 at 12:14 pm

  19. In editing school we are taught to drink good plonk as much as possible, and that ‘uncivil’ as adjective for ‘incivility’ is just one of those bottles that keep the joint’s tone right where it should be. (Also to try and appreciate attempts at pronunciation wit, witting or not, as in ‘I tort tahts at the lore school’, etc.)

    Comment by David Moran — December 14, 2013 at 2:27 pm

  20. I am no longer surprised.

    Perhaps Ben has sth in common with Mark, who just discovered that Brahms VC is not so boring. Seemingly liking Brahms much, Ben is still lost. The history that I know is that there was no Brahms side or Wagner side. There were only the ethnic ‘pro’ music ‘reviewer’ Hans…’s side and true music genius’ side. You think Brahms truly believed those nonsense by that ‘pro’?

    One great advantage of an incivil ‘civilization’ is that those who are unmusical never try to pretend to love the greatest music genius.

    Comment by Thorsten — December 14, 2013 at 3:27 pm

  21. It is gratifying that my enormous subtlety is appreciated by at least a couple of readers, although they missed the allusion to the French torte as in cake, in referring to the crumby (crummy) preceding remarks

    Comment by philip johnson — December 14, 2013 at 3:28 pm

  22. My objection to the obsolete “incivil” is that it brings a reader — or that it at least brought this reader — up short, making him wonder why the much commoner “uncivil” wasn’t used instead.

    I wouldn’t have used the phrase “according to Webster” either, because in some everyday contexts “Webster” has come to mean just about any old dictionary that wasn’t British.

    Wikipedia’s “Webster’s Dictionary” article pegs this usage as something called a “genericized trademark” and then goes on patiently to explain what this means. Litigation figures heavily in the story.

    And is the Britten Violin Concerto all that much of a rarity any more? You wouldn’t surmise this from the many posts on YouTube, or from Anthony Burton’s instance-filled comparative discography in sound, which ran on BBC Radio 3’s “Building a Library” a while back.

    Comment by Richard Buell — December 14, 2013 at 4:27 pm

  23. Richard, Richard, no one thinks I meant Daniel or Miriam or Merriam or even Hoyle. Watch out for ironical “accordings”. Was trying to be lighthanded with my admonition.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — December 14, 2013 at 5:26 pm

  24. I think it is actually marvellous that in the second decade of the 21st century people still care enough to quarrel furiously about Berlioz, Wagner and Brahms! Maybe a bit incivil here and there, but such terrifically civilised incivility!

    Comment by Sandrine Leduc — December 14, 2013 at 11:54 pm

  25. Why label Mr. Pesetsky’s statement that Berlioz’s Romeo and Juliet is a “terrible piece of music” as an example of self-absorption? My take is quite the opposite; this is a statement of opinion honestly and forthrightly stated. Isn’t a music review just the place for such candor? No cant or dissembling. How refreshing! Although I very much enjoy reading Berlioz’s music criticism, I avoid at all costs finding myself trapped in a place where his music is being performed. There is one piece of his, however, that, although I can’t bear listening to, I will always be deeply thankful for; his “Beatrice and Benedict Overture”. It was within the first dozen measures of rehearsing this music many years ago that I began to question whether I wanted to continue my quest to become an orchestral musician. “If this is the sort of ghastly stuff that orchestras play, then I want none of it….” Thank you, Hector!

    Comment by Jonathan Brodie — December 15, 2013 at 1:36 pm

  26. A point was made about 24 posts ago on this thread which has been completely buried under an avalanche of pompous huffing and puffing over the niceties of the English language. It really is a waste of time contributing here.

    Comment by philip johnson — December 15, 2013 at 2:25 pm

  27. To track back to Comment post #1.

    If, say, you were to ask a flutist, in mixed company, about his instrument, and then the fellow went on and on about fipples, for God’s sake, and well past the point where even his flutist friends had fled, I believe you might call him, among other things, self-absorbed.

    Similarly, if a music article has a reader thinking “Why are you telling me all this?”, “Save it for your shrink,” or some such, you’ve lost that reader. The curt, non-learned “I hate spinach” comments can seem ever so wonderfully authentic by comparison.

    About Berlioz. As a teenager I used to find the opening of the “Beatrice et Benedict” Overture rhythmically and metrically inscrutable, hard to count and hard to hear. His P.T. Barnum horror comic side did appeal, though, even if the passages in between the cheap thrills — there wasn’t enough “there” there somehow — were the price you had to pay.

    But then, around this time of year, I heard “L’Enfance du Christ,” in which, assuming a set of stylistic disguises, Berlioz contrives not to sound at all like “Berlioz.” And there are the songs… The question will always be which Berlioz are we talking about.

    Self-absorption of the truly pathological kind, known in his day as spleen and in ours as depression, is something Berlioz knew all too well and in his Memoirs evokes in a way that no DSM entry will ever match:

    “There are … two kinds of spleen; one mocking, active, passionate, malignant; the other morose and wholly passive, when one’s only wish is for silence and solitude and the oblivion of sleep. For anyone possessed by this latter kind, nothing has meaning, the destruction of the world would hardly move him. At such times I could wish the earth were a shell filled with gunpowder, which I would put a match to for my diversion.”

    Comment by Richard Buell — December 15, 2013 at 6:27 pm

  28. With reference to comment #1 – I said that the reviewer’s comment was a self-absorbed one, and so it is. To say that this is a “terrible piece of music” without any tendered justification for that view, is inward-looking and subjective ie I don’t like it, therefore it is a terrible piece of music. Under the guise of writing reviews, a number of contributors in this publication vaunt their personal likes and dislikes on other subjects for example period-performance practice or the movements and “beat patterns of conductors. I am not interested in the personal biases of reviewers. Why do we need to hear them? Mr Pesetsky clearly has a problem with Wagner. It really doesn’t matter of course. Wagner is still a great composer. Lots of people with a forum for their personal hobby-horses. I wanted to make that point and have done so. With that, good night sweet Prince.

    Comment by Philip Johnson — December 15, 2013 at 9:00 pm

  29. Yes, it’s time to say goodbye to this thread. I hereby declare it closed. But it has not been without its amusements.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — December 15, 2013 at 10:22 pm

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