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Hammer Strokes and Organ Peals


Andris Nelsons returned Thursday after several weeks’ absence to impressive numbers of his loyal public at Symphony Hall; he didn’t disappoint, leading the orchestra masterfully in a demanding program consisting of the first performance of a new concerto for organ and orchestra and a Mahler symphony. Two more different works it would be hard to imagine, yet they shared at least one significant trait: the use of powerful marches, albeit to hugely different emotional affects.

The program began with the world premiere of Ascending Light for organ and orchestra, by Michael Gandolfi (b. 1956), member of the composition faculty of New England Conservatory and the Tanglewood Music Center. The BSO commission included a remarkable bit of synchronicity: the support of the Gomidas Organ Fund (Gomidas Vardapet (1869-1935) was a renowned Armenian priest, composer, and musicologist), the dedication to the memory of the Armenian-American former organist of the BSO, Berj Zamkochian, who established the Gomidas Organ Fund, and commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide of 1915. See related interview here.

Logically enough, Ascending Light is a celebration, in two movements, of Armenian culture in both “earthy” and “heavenly” dimensions. The soloist was Olivier Latry, a much-celebrated concert organist and one of the three titulaires of the Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris. The first movement, titled “Vis Vitalis” (life force), began with a grand march, fortissimo, with accented organ chords, timpani, tubular bells, and standing brass choirs on both sides of the stage. The movement was largely a succession of extended patterns of repetition which never grew monotonous because Gandolfi found myriad ways of varying the material—changing instrumentation as well as organ colors, adding cross-rhythms, imitation between soloist and orchestra, etc.—and doing so in something of a friendly competition of increasing elaboration. Organs, which can be powerful orchestras unto themselves, do not coexist easily with actual orchestras, but Gandolfi turned this to his advantage. A single, sustained organ tone connected the first movement to the second, which is a set of variations on the well-known lullaby of Tigranakert (the ancient capital of Armenia) and a final section based on a sacred melody, “Aravot Lousaber” (ascending light). After the gentle first iteration of the theme on the organ’s English horn stop (followed by the orchestra’s English horn), the variations included an atmospheric statement with sustained ppp strings over the clarinet’s murmuring accompaniment; a solo organ variation; an oboe singing over virtuosic string pizzicatos; and a weirdly wonderful piccolo solo over hushed, vibratoless strings which meshed handsomely with the organ’s delicate string celeste. Then came a rapturously beautiful bridge to the final section, with strings holding and harp outlining bare fifths into which the muted brass introduced “Aravot Lousaber” in chorale fashion and the organ also fleshed out the harmony. Thence began a gradual crescendo in orchestra and organ to the climactic combination of the sacred melody and the march heard at the outset, representing the enduring strength of Armenian culture despite the debacle of 1915, and reaching a splendid conclusion. At Nelsons’s cutoff, one stubborn reed pipe of the organ continued sounding the tonic pitch, an unintended echo of the single pitch linking the work’s two movements. Latry dispatched it within a few seconds by vigorously hammering the note and, after his initial chagrin, took it in good part: all of us who play this most mechanically complex of instruments realize that ciphers are an occasional if regrettable inevitability. But that accidental sustained note should in no way diminish the important role the BSO organ can play as both a powerful soloist and considerate collaborator. My final takeaway is a realization, even on this first hearing, that Gandolfi has contributed a distinguished addition to that rara avis, the organ concerto.

Gustav Mahler never wavered from his axiom that “a symphony must embrace everything,” but this was never more evident than in his Symphony No. 6 in A Minor, arguably the most far-ranging emotional journey in his oeuvre. Although the composer initially allowed the epithet “Tragic” to be attached to this work, he later banned it, presumably because it describes only one of the symphony’s many facets. Indeed, the power of the unrelieved minor-mode ending is derived from the almost numberless contrasting moods that precede it. Having surmounted the formidable technical challenges posed by this symphony, Nelsons and his players fearlessly explored its vast range of feeling, from Stygian depths and to Olympian heights. The many antitheses within the piece were often brutally juxtaposed with little or no transition: very soft and very loud, slow and fast, flowing legato and spiky staccato, etc. The unifying motif of the entire symphony—the A-major triad turning to minor—was never unduly spotlighted but also never failed to make its singular emotional impact. The famous “hammer blows of fate” were achieved using an object resembling, and swung in the manner of, a sledge hammer made of wood, fulfilling Mahler’s requirement of a “short, strong, but dully reverberating stroke of a non-metallic character (like an axe-stroke).” In the third movement, the caress of silken string sound and lovely solos from English horn, flute, and oboe provided an oasis of consolation. A volatile hodgepodge of mental states formed the last (fourth) movement, several times seeming headed inexorably to a triumphant major conclusion but suddenly somehow deflected into the minor and defeat; near the actual conclusion the martial march of the first movement reappears, only to die away to a pizzicato final twitch, the hero felled by a last hammer blow but not capitulating. At the cutoff, Nelsons froze in position, arms out horizontally, and even those dying to applaud were held motionless, allowing the heavy atmosphere in the hall to have its full effect: this was the conductor’s final achievement of many during the evening and as significant as any prior.

During both works (but especially the symphony) Nelsons’s podium choreography called to mind that of Leonard Bernstein, who did more than any other American conductor to popularize Mahler here in the United States as well as to show young people the rewards of “classical music.” As with Bernstein, the variety of Nelsons’s gestures, stances, and (doubtless) facial expressions seems virtually infinite, but the bottom line is that the Boston Symphony’s musicians are acutely responsive to them and he can “play” the orchestra like a single instrument. It is most heartening to see large numbers of high school/college-age audience members: they have picked up on the fact that whether Nelsons and the BSO are bringing a commissioned work to life or offering core repertoire in a dynamic way, it is an exciting time to be at Symphony Hall.

See related Gandolfi interview here and article on BSO organ here.

 Andris Nelsons and Olivier Latry (Liza Voll photo)
Andris Nelsons and Olivier Latry (Liza Voll photo)
Geoffrey Wieting holds Bachelor’s degrees in organ and Latin from Oberlin College and a Master’s degree in collaborative piano from New England Conservatory. He is a freelance organist, collaborative pianist and vocal coach. He sings with the Back Bay Chorale and serves on the Board of Directors of the Old West Organ Society.


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

  1. Great review. Thursday evening’s concert was superb. The Gandolfi work was powerful, expressive, and moving. I’ve never seen a BSO audience roar with such a sustained standing ovation to any new work being performed. Yes, it was tonal and accessible, but more than that, it was *really good.* It’s a work I want to hear again. When was the last time any of us said that at the premiere of any new work here in Boston?

    BSO management, please take note. I think if there is a distaste for new music in Boston, it’s more a distaste for atonal, inaccessible music that virtually no one except for 3-4 academicians can remotely enjoy or take any pleasure in. Thankfully we are done hearing the Elliott Carters and Milton Babbitts of the world here in Boston now that what’s-his-name is gone. There have to be other compositional voices out there besides Michael Gandolfi who write new music that is meaningful, expressive, and engaging.

    Kudos to Michael Gandolfi for writing a tremendous, powerful, and deeply affecting new piece of music. I have to believe this is a work that will be played for many years to come.

    Comment by Mogulmeister — March 27, 2015 at 9:59 pm

  2. I agree with Mogulmeister. The paradox is that the Music Director who inflicted (as I like to put it) Carter and Babbitt on us is the one we have to thank for commissioning Michael Gandolfi for this piece.

    While I’m thinking about the former Music Director, I’ll add that it has struck me as odd that the Orchestra has not given Maestro Levine a title recognizing his years of service. I’ve always believed that it was his fall on the stage of Symphony Hall that sent his health — not the greatest beforehand — into the tailspin which necessitated his lengthy absences. And it was the poor condition of the stage that led to the fall, which is why it was refloored as soon as possible after that. He gave all he could to the BSO, and it’s about time to acknowledge it. There is a Music Director Laureate and a Principal Guest Conductor Emeritus. Let’s have a Music Director Emeritus. If he’ll accept the honor, it’s petty not to give it. I didn’t like all the music he programmed, but he tried to give us the best, as he understood it.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — March 28, 2015 at 1:17 am

  3. Hear.

    Comment by David Moran — March 28, 2015 at 1:39 am

  4. As a visitor from the UK, who just happened to be in Boston, I must congratulate Boston on such a great orchestra, conductor and premiere.
    The opening of ascending light reminded me of the Berlioz Te Deum, and I sat open mouthed through the soundscapes that followed, and only wish I could listen to such a great and accessable work again soon. I was moved by the end, malfunctioning organ notwithstanding.
    The Mahler was delivered with aplomb, and I was especially impressed by the piccicato string playing, and harpists ( but I was closest to them in the hall!)
    I hope I get back to Boston again soon….I wish London had a hall with such good acoustics!

    Comment by Dan berney — March 28, 2015 at 12:34 pm


    Regarding Mahler, what I want to say is more or less the same as the last 3-4 sentences in my comment 2 years ago. The difference is that in the 1st movement, the sound was heavy on the low register instruments. The intention was obvious, but they out balanced the 1st violins, whose music line was broken through out the performance. In many places, their melodies were not easily ready to listeners. Their ensemble quality is not satisfying, which makes things even worse. If one understands what I wrote in the old comment, he ought to question the musicality of those instrument players. Did you see many of them smile at each other after certain emotional passages? It was just like the teenage girls I came across in front of a classical sculpture. They ‘seriously’ gazed at the man for a moment, then turned around and burst out chuckles towards each other, of course, on the subject of the sculpture’s genital. It becomes uninteresting when I repeat reporting the woodwinds being too dull and loud. I wish they understand that some lines are meant to be pastoral tunes from cowherds.

    I think this Mahler is one of the worse performance from Mr. Nelsons, whom I usually regarded rather highly.

    Organ piece was better than anything atonal. My first impression was it is like good movie music. Perhaps it deserves more credit as people raved about. But don’t know if I will have a second chance.

    Comment by Thorsten — March 28, 2015 at 1:16 pm

  6. One interesting comment I read– perhaps here– was that Mahler 6 can sound cheap if it is played well but too carefully, or something like that. Certainly the Haitink/BSO performances, as well-thought-out and executed as they were, wound up being a little too sober to allow the wackier stuff to sound first-rate.

    Tonight’s performance had the effect of resetting the circuit breakers and letting me forget how tired of the symphony I had become. It was a young man’s Mahler, but it caught the structure extraordinarily well and didn’t wallow in the treacle even while giving everyone room to play with character. Direct, intelligent, and flexible. And energetic, in case anyone was wondering. Also, one thing I especially enjoyed tonight was the heavy dosage of Webernian klangfarbenmelodie, which you get a lot of in the 4th but which isn’t usually made a huge feature of 6th performances.

    The Gandolfi I liked more as it went on. It started by threatening to become a Golijov spectacular, but there was enough to keep the musicians legitimately busy and just enough cleverness in the way the thematic material was developed that ended up making a nice opener. Certainly it put the organ’s characteristics front and center, which was part of the mission. We’ll have to see how well it wears, but as an occasional piece (suitable for inaugurating a concert hall, perhaps), it came off pretty well.

    Comment by Camilli — March 29, 2015 at 12:07 am

  7. Klangfarbenmelodie

    “[German, sound-color-melody]
    A term coined by composer Arnold Schoenberg to describe a style of composition that employs several different kinds of tone colors to a single pitch or to multiple pitches. This is achieved by distributing the pitch or melody among several different instruments.”

    See , which supplies the above definition and also offers several extended and highly engaging examples from Webern.

    Entirely new word to me, as well as concept, perhaps new to others also, and I’m grateful to both Schoenberg and Camilli for it. I had greatly savored the effect of the big A major triad that mutates to A minor, which Steven Ledbetter drew my attention to in his program notes (see p. 47 of program), very dramatically combining 3 trumpets and 3 oboes. Sorry I can’t get back for a second hearing of the Mahler to explore Klangfarbenmelodie further… but now I know it’s out there waiting for me.

    Comment by Joan Griscom — March 29, 2015 at 4:28 am

  8. For some ineluctable reason, the website for my citation failed to display in my published comment. To access it, and the examples of Klangfarbenmelodie, Google “Klangfarbenmelodie” along with “Music Dictionary.”

    Comment by Joan Griscom — March 29, 2015 at 4:35 am

  9. It has been drawn to my attention that my description of the Amajor/Aminor chord in Mahler’s 6th is incomplete. The long chord begins in A major and changes midway to A minor. It’s scored for 3 trumpets and 3 oboes, playing the notes simultaneously . But the color of the chord changes dramatically. The trumpets begin ff and slowly diminish to pp. The oboes begin pp and slowly crescendo to ff. The examples of Klangfarbenmelodien at the on-line Music Dictionary are audible, by the way, not simply written, so you can hear the changing pitches and colors.

    Comment by Joan Griscom — March 29, 2015 at 11:35 am

  10. The attention to the ‘Bernstein gymnastics’ not withstanding-as one who experienced many performances of Mahler symphonies under the late maestro-what I did come away from Fridays concert reading of the Mahler 6th was Nelsons’ similarity to Bernstein’s approach to Mahler in several
    aspects: per example-his attention to detail-woodwind figurations brought to the fore and outlined in the midst of the most complex orchestral passages,horn and brass that could be both subtle and sound with awesome force when called on.Even in his placement for the off-stage cow-bells that contributed a magical sonic effect. While coming up through a Latvian musical background-Nelsons certainly seems worthy of carrying the mantle of a great Mahler interpreter in a long tradition going back to Bruno Walter and Bernstein, etc.

    One short note related to the performance of Gandolfi’s:”Ascending Light”. Here is new music of great drama and spirituality. As I was listening-I thought of the late Armenian-American composer Alan Hovhaness, who’s roots were here in New England and who,I am sure,would have greatly appreciated both the music and subject matter of Gandolfi’s epic work. . . .

    Comment by Ron Barnell — March 29, 2015 at 6:14 pm

  11. I don’t know where “Thorsten” is seated in Symphony Hall, but from my location (2nd balcony, center), the balance was excellent and the melodies were “easily ready to the listeners”. We are in a fascinating time with the BSO. We get to watch as Andris Nelsons, already impressive, grows and learns. I expect his podium gymnastics to mellow and his musical acumen to expand.
    And to Mr Whipple I respond that the Former Music Director had divided allegiances at best and was not the best fit for the BSO when appointed. It seemed to me a case of the Emporer’s New Clothes. The public was agog with his fame and status, and as it was fashionable to slander his predecessor, many hailed him. I felt, and many others I have spoken to felt, that the result was less than hoped for, and we longed for the good old days. And to blame his physical condition on the floor, I think, is to ignore other more important contributing factors, i.e. his general physical conditioning.

    Comment by William McArtor — April 1, 2015 at 10:05 am

  12. Well, many members of the musically critical and sophisticated public were quite agog at the results they heard, including musicians in the orchestra who took new pride at being so shaped up and playing with such precision, focus, and musicality. The results spoke for themselves; I bet some can be heard online. (This review from less than two years ago certainly sounds familiar:

    As for slurring Levine’s physical conditioning, may none of us experience his ailments, in combination or serially.

    Comment by David Moran — April 1, 2015 at 1:06 pm

  13. R.Strauss has programme for all his majors works. Ironically, his works are sometimes considered superficial by many educated. Mahler knew this very well and he retracted his notes on music, so that his music is pure music and everything. On my long time observation, Mahler lovers know much less than what they think they know. I don’t pretend to know all, but for ‘little’ things I know, I could take oaths on them (nothing subjective). So, Mr McArtor, the balance you heard is different from mine. But depending on the day, I could be oversensitive to certain things and over-insensitive to others.

    Comment by Thorsten — April 2, 2015 at 4:21 pm

  14. Judy and I were thrilled by the tuesday concert,especially the brisk,intense, detailed M5 performed so well. When we were young(the 70s) we would go to NYC for Mahler (particularly for Solti and Chicago SO). Now we can probably count on great Mahler here. We were first taken with our maestro after the performance of the Shostakovich VC 1 (with the wonderful Baiba Skride } 2 years ago? that helped maestro get the job.

    Comment by morty schnee — April 3, 2015 at 10:24 am

  15. Programs large and small are ever-present in Mahler’s works, as Thorsten rightly insists; the question is to what degree they are to be made manifest in performance. Even if we had Gustav Mahler among us to elucidate the matter, I suspect that it would not get much clearer, as he appears to have been of many minds himself. In the program notes for Saturday’s performance there is mention of a footnote that he added to the score:

    “the cowbells must be handled very discreetly—in realistic imitation of a grazing herd, high and low-pitched bells resounding from the distance, now all together, now individually. It is, however, expressly noted, that this technical remark is not intended to provide a programmatic explanation.”

    How perfectly this captures Mahler’s character ! Ambition and ambivalence combined, gentle but quietly demanding, both offering a program but refusing to allow it to be to readily accepted (and what an impossible demand it makes of the conductor !). My own understanding is that he wants the pastoral image to be clear in the listener’s thoughts, but always fugitive, elusive, no sooner recognized than it is swept away in the tumult, an immense nostalgia replaced with a terrible longing.

    What I heard Saturday night was mostly what Ron Barnell describes, the great detail in the woodwinds and great range of expression and force in the brass. I also heard what is coming to seem to me one of Nelsons’ characteristic strengths, an absolutely reliable, in-every-muscle rhythmic sense that encompasses the entire work, so that deep-running rhythms can re-emerge after long absence and seem like they were there all along.

    I was somewhat surprised by the first movement of the Gandolfi work; what I had read about his use of insistent repetition had led me to expect something from the Riley/Reich school, but instead I heard something altogether more ambitious that briefly reminded me of Bruckner. However whereas Bruckner uses slowly-changing repetitive rhythmic figures to carve out an enormous musical space, as if he were building a cathedral, I detected no such structural function in the Gandolfi work; it merely wandered, sometimes in interesting directions.

    The second movement I found to be, well, accessible, so accessible I am tempted to call it Music of Easy Virtue. No favor was refused, no means of being ingratiating resisted. It is difficult to hold an interesting conversation with someone who insists on being so agreeable.

    On the subject of James Levine, I am very much in agreement with David Moran and Joe Whipple. We were very fortunate to have him, and the BSO is a much better orchestra because of him. I cherish the memories of performances he led of music by Mozart and Mahler, and Schoenberg, and Elliott Carter, the true beauty of whose music he understood and labored to reveal.

    Comment by SamW — April 3, 2015 at 7:46 pm

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