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.