in: Reviews

November 6, 2015

Lortie’s Poetry,Wizardry with BSO

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For a post-Halloween concert, the Boston Symphony Orchestra donned its own costume of sorts, programming Franz Liszt’s Totentanz (Death Dance) and a new work of Un Suk Chin, Mannequin, inspired by the writings of the fantasist E.T.A. Hoffman. While the former delightfully frightened, the latter quailed on its dark side. Missing were any costumed concert-goers and the sun-filled heart we expect to encounter in Schumann’s Rhenish Symphony.

Pianist Louis Lortie and BSO Assistant Conductor Ken-David Masur opened on a promising note. Their Liszt was autumn crisp, as moonlit night clear as New England ever gets. In cliché talk, Lortie, it can be said and meant, “owns Totentanz.” His virtuosity bespeaks poetry as much as wizardry.

He had the Steinway sounding its extremes, all the while extricating any and all excesses lying in tempting wait for the soloist. For the extremes to which composer Liszt took to vary the Dies Irae chant, Lortie shed each in its own super Romantic era light, then masterfully tied them all together in a statement that was as menacing as it was enticing.

The canonic fourth variation, for Lortie, was emblematic of his sensibilities for Liszt’s complexities. The magical shifting out of that contrapuntal texture into a new key and new register of the piano illustrated Lortie’s sensitivities toward otherwise obvious contrasts. Masur and BSO were there all the way with Lortie. Their thrilling performance ratcheted up still another notch for a blockbuster finale to the death dance.

Hoots and hollers widespread for Lortie, Masur, and the BSO, thinned for the American premiere of Mannequin. Even so, the composer Un Suk Chin apparently has an enthusiastic following here in our city. In fact, Mannequin is the second piece by Chin to be performed by the BSO, the first being her Cello Concerto, which received its American premiere in February of 2011.

The newly completed work by the Korean-born Un Suk Chin (1961) is a joint commission from London’s Southbank Centre with support from the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Danish National Symphony Orchestra, and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. The score triples wind instruments, augments brass, extends percussion to fishing reel, bottles, harmonica, washboard, spring coil and cans, and also calls for strings. Based on Hoffman’s “The Sandman,” Chin’s music opts for creating an “atmosphere of four of its significant motifs” rather than providing a narrative retelling of the story.

Due especially to her reliance on a multitude of metallic percussive appliances, a music-box naturally comes to mind—one cloaked in traditional orchestral raiment. Though inviting of surface, the composition challenged this listener to discern any mood swings or development from movement to movement.

For “Dance of the Clockwood Girl,” a sparse texture prominently displayed an offbeat ticking. Brass blares of the “Music Box—Fever Dream” would continue on into the three succeeding movements. Though off-beats and blares varied, they only did so “on paper.” Further still, some of the considerable detail in the string writing could only be seen, that is, if you were watching. Ultimately, Mannequin amounted to a dispiriting half-hour; offering much effect, it simply strutted new dressing for a tired, now all too predictable expression.

Ken David Masur and Louis Lortie (Hilary Scott photo)

Ken David Masur and Louis Lortie (Hilary Scott photo)

From the podium, Ken-David Masur explained some of the reasoning behind the programming of the three pieces. What might have been less obvious was the inclusion of Robert Schumann’s Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major, Opus 97, “Rhenish.” We were reminded of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s writings influences on Robert Schumann and alerted to the fact that the symphony reflected one of the happiest times in the composer’s life.

Last evening, the Rhenish summoned BSO precision and tonal splendor, even as the heart went missing. Masur conducted as if he were standing before a mirror. His considerable height and long arms exaggerated his frequent huge, oversized gestures. A curious notion, was the orchestra really watching? His gestures encouraged the perfunctory over the sun-filled optimism of that symphony.

With the exception of several horn dynamics being on the loud side and a few overall imbalances, the orchestra radiated a most lustrous sound, one that was captivating in its own right.

The fourth movement marked Feierlich (Solemn) did, though, communicate feeling. The close of the last, Lebhaft (Lively) thrilled to the nth degree.

David Patterson, Professor of Music and former chairman of the Performing Arts Department at UMass Boston, was recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Award and the Chancellor’s Distinction in Teaching Award. He studied with Nadia Boulanger and Olivier Messiaen in Paris and holds a PhD from Harvard University. He is the author of 20 Little Piano Pieces from Around the World (G. Schirmer). www.notescape.net

5 Comments

  1. Prof. Patterson, thank you for this thoughtful review. At the Friday performance, Mr. Lortie dazzled with his brilliant interpretation of the Liszt. Ms. Chin’s Mannequin had interesting orchestration: the contrabassoon was deliciously ominous, and the percussionists and timpanist made their virtuosic parts sound natural. The initial applause was tepid because the audience was not quite sure the piece was over. The program listed four movements, but many of us heard only three. When Mr. Masur brought the composer onstage, her gracious manner was so appealing that the applause swelled. The Schumann was buoyant and beautiful. In the fourth movement, Richard Sebring played the horn solo with a flawless arching line, while his colleagues offered noble, rounded tone.

    Comment by Alessandra Kingsford — November 7, 2015 at 7:41 am

  2. Ms. Kingsford is correct in two respects: We were told (orally) to expect four movements, but detected only three. And the Schumann was glorious, apparently unlike Thursdays performance.

    Comment by Martin Cohn — November 7, 2015 at 8:53 am

  3. Indeed so on that “four movements” question. I too was disappointed in the “Rhenish”; it seemed rushed and too loud, and definitely with little heart.

    Unsuk Chin’s piece was so eerie. It made me think what a perfect score it would make for a decent movie on “Shutter Island”…

    One minor quibble with a fine review: the summary. The “Rhenish” did not frame the other two pieces; it followed.

    Comment by Bettina A Norton — November 7, 2015 at 11:32 am

  4. The slow buildup of applause after “Mannequin” made it clear that I was far from the only one who didn’t notice the end of the third movement and the beginning of the fourth. It’s gratifying to know that some who are much more expert than I were among those who missed it. I think Dr. Patterson identifies the reason when he points out that there were no discernible mood swings or development after the first movement. I applauded enthusiastically for the composer, because I thought she had done a good job of writing music to depict the state of mind of a frightened boy or man, but after the music box effects of the first section, it seemed, on first hearing, to be much of a muchness. I also have to wonder about the vast array of percussion: was it really necessary? I never noticed the fishing reel, for example. And why the bowing of two different percussion instruments? If I could distinguish the sounds, I think they sounded a lot like violins. Still, it was very good nightmare music.

    This piece may not merit a place in the standard repertoire, but it should be played every once in a while — maybe every fifteen or twenty years, in place of something that gets played four or five times over the same span.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — November 7, 2015 at 3:07 pm

  5. Framing is not the same act as sandwiching.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — November 7, 2015 at 8:09 pm

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