in: Reviews

January 30, 2015

Stars and Fisch at BSO



Julian Rachlin (Stu Rosner photo)

There were a lot of empty seats in Symphony Hall last night, no doubt a result of last Tuesday’s big snow, but those who came heard the Boston Symphony in an unusual program, ably played and well-received, including a standing ovation of at least part of the audience after each of three pieces. Asher Fisch directed with a balletic style which the orchestra seemed to like.

Avner Dorman’s Astrolatry, a 14-minute piece in two movements, depicts respectively, “a dance of the revelations of the stars,” and “the worship of the stars,” according to the composer’s note [see more here in BMInt interview]. It began the program on a sustained pianissimo E in double-bass harmonics interrupted by quiet bursts of upper-register percussion jingles and woodwind birdcalls, and then a sudden fff chromatic-scale downslide (I thought of the full-orchestra horse laugh in octaves in Mahler’s third). The dance that follows reveals itself gradually in klezmer-like riffs (a nice solo clarinet disappears and reappears) and waltz fragments with distinct harmonic bass lines. Eventually a tribal dance begins with a march drumbeat of manic intensity, with heavy percussion and col legno cellos and basses, and I certainly felt the dynamic approaching ffff. (Asher Fisch bounced up and down on his toes with every beat, to make sure we didn’t miss the point.) In a more manageable forte dynamic, the “leader” of the ritual took over with a polymetric marimba pattern, a low-register melody dueling effectively with other segments of the orchestra, including high-register flutter horns that were as scary as the drumbeat that preceded them. The roars from the very low tuba cut through the entire tutti with savage brilliance. And almost suddenly, the return of the sustained E in string harmonics (I think a vibraphone was in there too) showed that the ritual was over, but the light of the stars remained. The lip glisses in the horns near the end are familiar already from The Rite of Spring and The Miraculous Mandarin, but these were even better.

Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 2, in G Minor, Op. 63, is regarded as more lyrical and melodious than his first, but it certainly has its fierceness as well, with plenty of crunch chords and vigorous passage work for the soloist, and it’s a tossup as to which of the two concertos is the more popular. (I’ve always imagined a coffee-house meeting in 1935 of Alban Berg, aged 50, and Prokofiev, aged 44, each showing the other his newly-finished G minor violin concerto—Berg’s completed on August 11th, and Prokofiev’s on August 16th.) The soloist Julian Rachlin seemed to be fighting the orchestra much of the time, in an effort to make himself heard without scratchiness; it’s likely he could have projected more effectively if the string section had been somewhat reduced. But in the less furious passages his expressive tone soared and came through clearly, especially in the high register, and the second movement showed this with particular warmth.

Asher Fisch in Avner Dorman's Astrolatry (Stu Rosner photo)

Asher Fisch in Avner Dorman’s Astrolatry (Stu Rosner photo)

After the intermission came Schumann’s Symphony No. 1, in B-flat Major, “Spring.” Next to the second, this is the most winning of the composer’s symphonies, and the one with the fewest formal problems. (I’ve written elsewhere in these pages about how Schumann sought to take the next step after Beethoven in carrying forward the symphonic genre, and about how he may have recycled a theme from Kreisleriana—to which I’d now add that the trombone chorale in the slow movement of the First Symphony seems to be re-imagined in the Third.) Asher Fisch gave the “Spring” a frenzied reading, with some fine expression but a dynamic level that was overly loud too much of the time. I was impressed by the subtle accents that came from adroit cueing, but Fisch’s freewheeling (there’s no other word for it) circular beat and gymnastic stick technique regularly seemed to make the orchestra overreact. There’s no excuse for the kind of rubato that he insisted upon at m. 437 in the coda of the first movement, with a general slowing of tempo completely uncalled-for in the score. But in general, I enjoyed the performance. And the experience was certainly heightened by the pleasure of reading absolutely excellent program notes that John Harbison wrote for BSO performances in 1977.

Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert in Alban Berg, also Ravel and Debussy. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (PhD, 1967), he has published extensively on these composers and many music subjects, most notably,  harmony.


  1. If this were one of the programs that gets a fourth performance, on the following Tuesday, I’d get a ticket and go hear “Astrolatry” again. With the help of the preparatory material available on the BSO website, I found it meaningful. Even though the interview in these pages and Brian McCreath’s interview with Asher Fisch on WCRB relativize what’s in Brian Bell’s interview with Avner Dorman, it was a useful program to have in mind on Thursday evening — just as it’s good to know about “Im Thale blüht der Frühling auf” when listening to the Schumann first. It was a very enjoyable piece, fascinating to listen to, and I was pleased to encounter the composer in the corridor during intermission and have the chance to compliment him on the work.

    It’s too bad conductors don’t seem to feel _or maybe have — the freedom of earlier times, when a conductor could decide to “play it again” during the same or a subsequent concert. The players know it, and it shouldn’t be difficult for them to add it to an upcoming concert program this year. Unfortunately, given current practices, that seems unlikely. But I really do hope that this is not the last time we’ll hear “Astrolatry” in BSO concerts. The sooner Maestro Nelsons and Tony Fogg schedule another subscription performance, the better. And given how good “Astrolatry” is, I also hope other Dorman compositions will get a hearing. Maybe we could have a Dorman “festival.”

    Comment by Joe Whipple — February 1, 2015 at 12:01 am

  2. Joe: “…just as it’s good to know about “Im Thale blüht der Frühling auf” when listening to the Schumann first. It was a very enjoyable piece, fascinating to listen to, and I was pleased to encounter the composer in the corridor during intermission and have the chance to compliment him on the work.”

    I thought for a moment that you’d run into Schumann in the corridor! Symphony Hall is truly a special place.

    Comment by nimitta — February 2, 2015 at 12:28 am

  3. nimitta — LOL

    I guess I should have used parentheses rather than a dash to set off that clause. mea maxima culpa.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — February 2, 2015 at 12:08 pm

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