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BUSO Sounds Off!


Carl Nielsen in 1884
Carl Nielsen in 1884

The Boston University Symphony Orchestra serves a variety of purposes. Of course, it gives public performances, such as the one Thursday night at the Tsai Center, with which this report is chiefly concerned. But it also serves as a resource for the BU community, both as the performance vehicle for students at BU’s quasi-conservatory School of Music within the College of Fine Arts, which it antedates by some 80 years, and as a sounding board for BUSM faculty composers. Thursday’s program combined all these elements.

The opener, John Harbison’s Remembering Gatsby: Foxtrot for Orchestra from 1985, some 14 years before The Great Gatsby, his opera on the Fitzgerald classic, received its premiere. The composer’s note printed in the program strikes an anachronistic tone, seemingly unedited and therefore unaware that the opera had actually happened, it suggests that the project had been abandoned. This points up the fact that Remembering is neither an excerpt, nor an overture, but rather something like a premonition of the larger opus. It’s also one of Harbison’s most popular numbers. Its central feature, as its name foretells, is a ‘20s-style foxtrot—a charming tune, set as one would imagine in a Lord Peter Wimsey story, with a demure saxophone hinting at repressed eroticism (nice work by Cara Kinney) and phrases ending with a light touch to the hi-hat. This is framed and intertwined with more overtly anguished and dissonant modern sounds that put the gaiety in its novelistic and historical context—a clearing within the mists, a reverie, a glimpse of innocence within a crushing and brutal reality.

The other aspect of the orchestra’s educational function on display was the presence of Lina Marcela Gonzalez at the podium. A native of Colombia, she is a DMA conducting student of BUSO artistic director David Hoose, and has already begun an active career with ensembles in the US and Latin America, including Boston’s chamber orchestra, the Unitas Ensemble. She kept the large forces solidly together and in balance, with a beautiful blended brass sonority, although her rhythms were excessively stiff and her dynamics insufficiently varied.

The “sounding board” aspect of the BUSO’s mission came next, with Hoose leading the premiere performance of BU faculty member John H. Wallace’s Symphony. Wallace’s note indicates that the score is dedicated to the memory of the composer’s father, who died at 92 in 2013. In four slow movements (the second is ostensibly a moderato con moto, but the pulse seemed indistinguishable from the adagio afflitto first, the largo lamentoso third or the adagio lamentoso fourth. By now you should be getting the idea. The music is pretty relentlessly lachrymose except where it’s angry. Although the composer referred to the piece as lyrical in orientation, this is true only in the technical sense that it carries melodic ideas. The most striking of them happens right up front, a chorus of severe snap pizzicati in the basses that is recapitulated later in the movement and then referred to again in a subsequent movement. Another noticeable strain is an arpeggiated motif that dominates the finale. There is also a passage pleasantly reminiscent of ‘60s Penderecki in the third movement. Ideas sometimes suggest an overthrow of the gloom, but they don’t last long, and invariably sink back.

There are some great works that consist of a series of slow movements: Haydn’s Seven Last Words and Vaughan Williams’s Pastoral Symphony come immediately to mind. We hate to rain on anybody’s parade, but Wallace’s symphony, in comparison, does not adequately vary the textures, dynamics, harmonies or outlook. We got no sense of his having considered a subject from a variety of angles, only a series of paraphrases of the same thing. As best we could tell, Hoose and the orchestra performed well, so those who were more persuaded than we were by the composer’s rhetoric could at least take satisfaction that it was expertly conveyed.

Hoose and the orchestra returned after intermission with a perfect antidote to the study in gray and black that preceded it, with a sparkling, lively, and robust reading of Carl Nielsen’s second symphony, The Four Temperaments. Supposedly inspired by a rustic painting Nielsen came across in a pub, depicting people exhibiting the “humors” that classical physicians, notably Hippocrates, theorized informed human psychology. From this joke-like premise Nielsen spun a perfectly formed and compactly argued Romantic symphony that, to our ears, owes a lot to Schumann despite the more advanced harmonic language (it was premiered in 1902). The opening allegro collerico took off like a shot and, in Hoose’s hands, was high-spirited despite the nominal B minor key (the symphony as a whole is a good illustration of Nielsen’s use of “progressive harmony,” with the keys progressing to G major, E-flat minor and D major, thus no two movements in the same key). The traditional scherzo was replaced by an intermezzo-like waltz rendering of phlegmatism, which might have been taken a bit too fast, but which was charming, with lovely ensemble work by the horns. The andante malincolico displayed good pacing and dynamic sensitivity and contrast, and the sanguinary finale was mostly bright and bubbly up to the rousing march that closes it. Nielsen put some wonderful compositional touches into this work, such as the surprise drum-stroke ending the trio of the second movement, and a second subject in the finale that subverts the “sobbing” motif that predominates in the slow movement. The orchestra seemed fully in command here, taking its chance to break free and trot its stuff.

Vance R. Koven studied music at Queens College and New England Conservatory, and law at Harvard. A composer and practicing attorney, he was for many years the chairman of Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble.

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