in: Reviews

April 10, 2015

Contrasts and Dreamscapes


 Andris Nelsons and  Richard Goode (Dominick Reuter photo)

Andris Nelsons and Richard Goode (Dominick Reuter photo)

Music Director Andris Nelsons’s Thursday BSO program, comprising a wide range of musical styles and eras, induced an enthusiastic reception in the nearly full house. The program will be repeated tonight (Friday), Saturday and next Tuesday.

The best-received of the three works was Richard Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben (A Heroic Life), Op. 40, a six-part uninterrupted tone poem that gave the BSO an opportunity to bring its best colors and textures to a major work. The challenge was met under Nelsons’s conducting—athletic, wiry, but always in the service of the music, not the gallery.

An expanded orchestra attacked the stormy and violent passages, and treated the glorious crescendos as confidently as the quiet lyricism. Strauss walks through his hero’s life, opening with a sketch of the subject, then moving to his adversaries (He had in mind some of the Berlin critics and hoped they recognized themselves), then his companions. Violinist Malcolm Lowe interpreted the intimate portrait of Strauss’s muse, his wife Pauline, inspired by instructions in the score to render her flippant, tender, gay, emotional, nagging and loving, among other aspects.

Without pause, the tone poem goes on to portray the hero’s Battlefield, Works of Peace, concluding with his Escape from the World and Fulfillment. At the end, the breathtaking descent into pianissimo hung in the air for a few seconds before the audience erupted in a standing ovation, with whistles and shouts and a few stomps. Nelsons took the applause and graciously called on a dozen soloists to stand and bow, one by one.

Richard Goode, a much-admired Mozartean, delivered an emotional version of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 27 in B-flat Major (K. 595) retaining Mozart’s cadenzas in the first and third movements. Goode’s subtle rubatos and controlled dynamics tugged at the clean lines and shifting moods, brouging meaning to passages that are often rendered hurriedly and far less memorably. The Allegro final movement displays Mozart’s desire to please audiences rather than simply challenge them, and Goode grasped the intent. His lilting feather touch on the Steinway seemed perfectly in sync with the vivacious music. Nelsons and Goode clearly had a meeting of the minds. Nelson was equally comfortable with the concerto, conducting from memory and literally dancing on the podium. The work is generally accepted as Mozart’s last piano concerto and was performed once with himself at the piano, early in 1791. It was his last public performance; he died in December of that year at age 35.

 Gunther Schuller’s Dreamscape, a three-movement work premiered by the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra in 2012, got its first performance by the BSO, complete with an expanded orchestra crowded onto the Symphony Hall stage. Among the special instrumentation were four piccolos, four bassoons, including a contrabassoon that got one solo honk for laughs, and six percussionists who kept busy with sleigh bells, tom toms, four Chinese gongs, ratchet, glockenspiel, bell tree and a lion’s roar, among other things. The result was a witty opening movement (Scherzo Umoristico e Curioso), followed by a calming and dark second movement, in which the BSO’s augmented strings ooze in tandem with reeds and two harps. It ended with a slowly evolving third, all completed in 11 minutes. Chuckles rippled through the audience as Schuller’s musical jokes unfurled, including a quote from Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker. Nelsons evidently enjoyed this BSO premiere as well, virtually enveloping the large orchestra with his long arms as he shaped the changing moods.

Dreamscape was commissioned by the Tanglewood Music Center for the 75th anniversary of Tanglewood. The prolific Schuller, now approaching 90, is modest about his compositional technique. As he wrote in his program note, “… the entire work—yes, the entire work—was presented to me in a dream, not just little bits of it but ranging from its overall form and conception to an amazing amount of specific detail.”

Looking frail and rising with a cane, Schuller took his bows from the  audience. I spoke to him at intermission and learned that he is still composing and is proud to have completed 20 works in the past two years.

Schuller’s experience with the subconscious in repose was remarkable but not unique. Stravinsky said the theme of The Soldier’s Tale came to him in a dream, as did the concept for the death dance in Rite of Spring. Lesser composers like to blog of their creative “lucid music” dreams, which sometimes send them hurtling to the piano at 3 a.m. to capture a few bars. It is rare, however, for a complete composition to emerge from a single dream. Schuller acknowledges that he had to scribble notes for about ten minutes before all faded away.

Schuller bows following his “Dreamscape (Dominick Reuter photo)


In an exclusive interview for the Intelligencer, Schuller said late Friday afternoon that he found Nelsons interpretation of Dreamscape “eighty percent of what I wrote.” The performance, he added, was “extraordinary but not fully realized.” With each subsequent performance, he said, he expects it further to approach his expectations.

He praised Nelsons and the orchestra for mastering the “unbelievably complex score” with the limited rehearsal time orchestras have today. It’s not surprising that they “cannot get it all,” he added.

Discussing the dream phenomenon, he said he was shown in his dream how to use specific rhythmic and harmonic structures and was told to “play musical jokes.” He added, “Do you know how hard it is to write musical jokes so that people will understand what you’re joking about?” He said he has had other musical dreams that gave him small bits but this was the grandest experience of his long life.

The BSO will take this same program to Carnegie Hall on April 15th, including Dreamscape. Schuller says he will be there if his health permits.

Michael Johnson is a former Moscow correspondent who has written on music for the International New York Times, Clavier Companion, and other publications. He divides his time between Bordeaux and Brookline.


  1. There were tears in my eyes when I heard the Eroica theme towards the end, because of my deep love of both of them. It was not because of their playing quality. You have to be perfect to play Strauss. Their performance was far from that.

    I did not particularly find Mr. Lowe’s solo very moving.

    Comment by Thorsten — April 17, 2015 at 10:39 pm

  2. Gunther Schuller asked me to clarify some statements in the review of the BSO performance of his piece, Dreamscapes. His points, I believe, are in the spirit of promoting accuracy; anyone who knows him recognizes that he especially cares about getting the facts straight. He wants to make it very clear that he thought the review was “pretty good”; and that “two great things he said were absolutely right”: that Nelsons’s conducting was “always in the service of the music, …” and that describing how Strauss tried to render Pauline “flippant” was a “very good description.”

    Schuller found problems with calling attention to his piece as one with “oversized orchestra “crowded onto the stage.” In any given season, he noted, there will be a large orchestra and to keep calling it an oversize as if was some specialty, “Well, he shouldn’t have said that.” The four piccolos, he pointed out, also played flutes, but he did not consider it worth mentioning. As for the contrabassoon, it didn’t just get one solo HONK, he said. “I love it. I made many more. The ‘lion’s roar’ has been used since Varese, in 1915. And the list of percussion instruments is part of the percussion section in any great orchestra.”

    Schuller also wishes to point out that the string section was not augmented; it was the usual large size whenever called for. He pointed out that it was the same number as Ein Heldenleben on the same program. “There must be a thousand pieces with large orchestra,” Schuller expounded, citing Daphnis and Chloe, Scriabin’s two tone poems,… “It shouldn’t be in the discussion.”

    He bristled at being called “modest,” insisting that he neither considers himself modest, nor does he brag. He just writes music. It is rare for a complete composition to emerge from a single dream, he added; “I told him in my interview that it was 80%, not the whole piece.”

    As for how it came across on that Thursday performance, the first of four, Schuller felt that the reviewer should have mentioned that, because of an extreme lack of time “it was not fully realized.” He should have mentioned that Nelsons had to spend lots of time on Heldenleben, and that orchestras are not allowed to have more than four rehearsals. So modern pieces get the short shrift sometimes, esp. when there is a huge 40-minute piece that takes a lot of time.

    Little by little, each performance got better, Schuller said, “and that is exactly what happened.”

    Comment by Bettina A Norton — April 28, 2015 at 6:15 pm

  3. Why does Schuller need to be quoted and paraphrased? As articulate as he is, he should have submitted a comment.

    Comment by Martin Cohn — April 29, 2015 at 12:36 pm

  4. He asked and I complied.

    Comment by Bettina A Norton — April 29, 2015 at 6:06 pm

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