in: Reviews

November 17, 2014

Russian Connections and Magic Tricks

by

Hakan-Hardenberger (Hilary Scott photo)

Hakan Hardenberger at BSO last season (Hilary Scott photo)

An unusually large number of music critics from across the nation could be spotted at Symphony Hall on Thursday night, but I wasn’t intending to be one of them. I was there—like the majority of listeners—simply to hear some music and experience for myself a bit of these early, exciting, days of Andris Nelsons’s tenure as the Boston Symphony’s music director.

But in the absence of another reviewer from the Intelligencer, I’ve been drafted after the fact to provide a review.

Fortunately the subtle interconnectedness of the program gave the concert an added resonance that still lingers four days later. Two Russian works, written just 25 years apart, framed the evening – Tchaikovsky’s enigmatic Hamlet Overture-Fantasy and Stravinsky’s landmark Rite of Spring.

As a 25-year-old writer, had I been born in 1889 instead of 1989, I could have heard a Tchaikovsky premiere as a toddler, and reviewed Stravinsky as a young adult. That’s a lot of musical change for a quarter-century.

Yet there’s still a sturdy thread that connects the late Tchaikovsky to the early Stravinsky. The music tugs and pushes in similar ways, and both Hamlet and Rite of Spring seem to grasp at something beyond the notes—a serious narrative idea—but not necessarily one that is entirely concrete.

The Tchaikovsky overture encapsulates Shakespeare’s Hamlet without being a direct pantomime of scenes and events. The music wavers dourly, with only occasionally identifiable references to the play. There’s an Ophelia theme, and finally a climactic moment of death. While not as beautiful as Tchaikovsky’s late ballets, or as exciting as some of his symphonies, the overture is certainly intriguing. The BSO hadn’t trotted it out since 1968, and it sounded fresh to the players—mostly for the best.

And since this isn’t a piece anyone would simply stumble into including, it might be a hint at the kind of repertoire and concert constructions we can expect from the BSO under Nelsons’s tenure. It runs against the grain to say that Tchaikovsky is daring programing while Stravinsky is the safe choice, but for this event, that’s how it felt.

Of course, it’s also a little odd to continually fetishize the 101-year-old Rite of Spring as a landmark of contemporary music. Recognizing that in the sweep of history it lies four times closer to Tchaikovsky than it does to the present day, lends some healthy perspective.

Under Nelsons’s baton, some of the sharper edges were smoothed over while Stravinsky’s heavy, hulking, writing was exaggerated to almost Gothic effect. In the right moments, Nelsons drew his hands through the air as if through molasses, and lumbered on the podium. At other times he highlighted the beauty of a delicate line or crystalline shading. He painted the Rite of Spring as a piece of great repertoire—much more than a bag of modern tricks.

The same can’t be said of Brett Dean’s Dramatis Personae, Music for Trumpet and Orchestra (2013), which occupied the middle position. Presented here in its American premiere, this concerto felt glib, and sometimes bordered on mind-numbing. The use of orchestral effects (ultimately derived from pieces like Rite of Spring) sounded tired outside of a meaningful musical context. And jocular movement titles like “Fall of a Superhero,” “Soliloquy,” or “The Accidental Revolutionary” didn’t help.

Occasionally some motivic strand caught the ear, and in general the slow passages were better than the long stretches of frenetic passagework. Soloist Håkan Hardenberger hit his high notes with a silvery sound, and made comprehensive use of several different kinds of mutes. He paced the stage in a dramatic frock coat, giving the impression of a Victorian magician performing a trick. It was an appropriate wardrobe choice.

Throughout the evening, the orchestra sounded excellent and looked viscerally engaged in their music making. Not every selection will be a masterpiece, but clearly there is great playing and insightful planning happening right now at Symphony Hall.

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.

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