Apparently someone lost track of Vladimir Jurowski’s visa, leaving the BSO without his ministrations for an intriguing but odd combination of pieces for this weekend’s concert. The orchestra was able to rescue the U.S. premiere of Harrison Birtwistle’s new piece for piano and orchestra by securing conductor Stefan Asbury, who had conducted the world premiere, and the composer had written the work for the evening’s soloist, Pierre-Laurent Aimard. BSO assistant conductor Ken-David Masur did an able job with the rest of the program.
On Thursday night, the well-known works were well-presented: Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune featured Elizabeth Rowe’s darkly resonant flute, and Masur directed with a very free rubato that was never loose or weak: the changes in tempo were muscular and elastic, and the piece evolved as if by respiration, through deep breathing. Stravinsky’s Suite from The Firebird (1919 version) emphasized color and beauty; the Round Dance and Lullaby were especially gorgeous, as was the brooding opening. Although the Firebird’s music was careful rather than spirited, and the Infernal Dance was handsome rather than terrifying, it was a satisfying performance of a comfortably familiar work.
You could seemingly divide the audience at Symphony Hall into two distinct camps based on which of the two lesser-known works they preferred. There was the Birtwistle, more about which below; and the “symphonic tableau” From the Apocalypse, Russian composer Anatoly Liadov’s Op. 66 from 1913. It was in this piece I missed Jurowski most, because I simply cannot understand why he chose to program it. Liadov is best known for his indolence and for the fact that he passed up the commission to write the Firebird ballet that made Stravinsky’s reputation. There’s something almost cruel in the choice to program this work right before Stravinsky’s. Although Liadov is the author of some attractive miniatures, From the Apocalypse is a rather loud, dour and bombastic affair; the best I can say about it is that is brief, and that it might be considered “ahead of its time” insofar as much of it sounds like a film score. It’s not even very impressive—Stravinsky’s Infernal Dance is far more threatening and apocalyptic than Liadov’s cliché tympani. The work had a run of popularity in Boston during the Koussevitzky years, with several performances between 1925 and 1943—and then not again until Thursday. Too soon, in my opinion; but to judge by the whoops and hollers offered when the brass took their bow (they did do much of the heavy lifting), there’s still an audience for it.
Birtwistle, who is now 81, seems to have stepped in to the role of “Grand Old Man of Modernism” which was last held by Elliott Carter until his death in 2012. Like Carter, Birtwistle writes challenging, uncompromising music that demands close attention from the listener. His work has always been a bit more accessible than Carter’s, thanks in part to the fact that many of his pieces are theatrical works and operas, which have text and dramatic structure. These can assist the listener when the work of tracking the musical development becomes too much. This new work doesn’t have a libretto or action to make life easier. It comes with an ungainly name: Responses: Sweet disorder and the carefully careless, the subtitle taken from an essay by English architect Robert Maxwell; and is written for piano and a simply huge orchestra (triple woodwind, three large batteries of percussion, two harps, etc.) and was co-commissioned by the BSO. Fiona Maddock’s recent book of conversations with Birtwistle, Wild Tracks, was written during the genesis of this piece; in it, Birtwistle worries at some length about piano concertos and about the relationship of the soloist to the orchestra in other works. He has settled on something rather unlike a concerto – instead, although the piano is a prime generator of musical material, it is frequently subsumed into the texture of the orchestra. It is more like the piano in Messaien’s Turangalîla-symphonie than anything by Beethoven or Brahms. In the same book Birtwistle talks about music as an art of memory: as it spins out in time the task of the composer and listener is to present musical material in such a way that what happens in the present has some relation to what is past, and when listened to with this precept in mind, the fecundity and inventiveness of his music becomes apparent. However, the density of his material, the speed with which it appears, and the complexity of its evolution make for a serious listening challenge indeed. The work is muscular and tension-filled; the image of a struggling Laocoön came to mind. It is not infrequently violent, and what softer, more melodic moments he provides are brief. Responses is indeed a work of responses, but they come fast and furious, and are not always what you expect. An outline of three or four notes might be passed around the orchestra, taken up by the piano in clusters, spread out over several instruments—and then be obliterated by some sonic smear.
There are moments of repetition and grand gesture that are easy to enjoy—a passage with brass wah-wahs put the students ahead of me into stitches—but more often I found myself grabbing fragments here and there, hoping to hear them return. That huge orchestra is used to create a swirl of color, and only occasionally to create an overwhelming mass of sound. A work of significant scale, nearly half an hour long, I found it fascinating but frustrating. Momentary lapses of concentration caused me to lose track of the argument, and it was a struggle to gain it back. There were many moments of small-scale pleasure, discerning the micro-processes of development and elaboration. However, despite my efforts I lost track of the architecture, and was surprised when it came to an end. However, at no point was I bored, and the 28 or so minutes of the piece passed surprisingly quickly. I haven’t heard a piece that has challenged and intrigued me this much since a performance of Carter’s Symphonia: sum fluxae pretium spei at Sanders Theater many years ago. I still return to Oliver Knussen’s recording of it every now and then to see what multiple hearings disclose; and multiple hearings would be necessary to give an accurate idea of just what staying power Responses will have.
It is impossible to judge the quality of a premiere of this difficulty, but Asbury and the orchestra succeeded in producing a sound with enough depth and detail that it was not a struggle to hunt for echoes and transformations of melodies and harmonies. Aimard gave what one presumes was a definitive interpretation, giving the music a sense of struggle without ever seeming to struggle himself. Birtwistle was on hand for the performance and took a bow to a scattered standing ovation.