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.
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.