IN: Reviews

Genesis and Symbiosis at the BSO


Jean-Frederic Neuberger and Christoph von Dohnanyi (Liza Voll photo)
Jean-Frederic Neuburger and Christoph von Dohnanyi (Liza Voll photo)

Three meditations on organic existence and the search for meaning in the face of the infinite: From Jean-Frédérick Neuburger a world premiere offering a view of the mystery and terror of the dawn of life. From Bartok, a vitalist momentum in us that seeks to rise only to wilt, then finds a balance in the intuitive creative rhythms of human community. From Beethoven, a struggle between the artist and posterity, triggering a pure, unadulterated gratitude that overflows into an affirmation of life and human strength. All this at Symphony Hall on Thursday!

Like an emblem of personal creativity and collective gratitude, Neuburger’s Aube was commissioned by the BSO at Dohnányi’s request, with support from both public and private foundations. The 11-minute piece uses orchestration to provide structure to seemingly random sonic events, a revised form of musique concrète by way of Debussy’s colorism. Restrained, elegant, nuanced and engrossing, it began with a menacing rumble, then sheets of crescendos, followed by clock-like rhythms and culminating in a majestic horn call as a soft awakening. Evoking a cacophonic jungle of clashing, disproportionate forces, macro and micro forms searched for a way to coexist in a dark, dazzling space. The effect was mysterious and alien, like a primordial void (tohu va bohu) in which life emerges by testing inchoate possibilities. Reaching a peak in a piercing crescendo, stabilizing in tremors in the strings, evoking energy transfer and the beginning of symbiosis, the music then died away into rumblings, with a sudden brief appearance of magical sounds at the end. Neuburger was on hand to receive a warm reception from the crowd after the performance.

There is a baroque austerity to Bartok’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta; its slow-fast-slow-fast format is reminiscent of a sonata da chiesa, and the tightly controlled architectural structure allows the musical ideas to blossom with a wild extravagance. For instance, the first movement is a slow fugue consisting almost entirely of subject entries, starting on A and moving alternately up and down the circle of fifths to climax fff at E-flat, continuing around in a slow diminuendo with the subject inverted. Dohnányi gave it a distinctive interpretation. Dohnányi took the first three movements at a moderate pace, imbuing the opening Andante tranquillo with a persistent, forceful sense of anxiety, soft and muted with celeste downplayed, building to a tense climax and then sliding back down to a soft fade, feeling like a loss of vital energy. The Allegro was dark and menacing, swirling slurs, slides and glissandos everywhere, anxious and nervous, near-panic amid the cacophony. A surprisingly slow trio section pizzicato, then a return of the Furies, somehow under control now. The “night music” Adagio was not threatening, but rather it evoked a mysterious, magical space, a view of the celestial at the periphery of the Universe and a working out of and release from anxiety, preparing nicely for a convincing emphasis on the final movement. The Allegro molto was joyous, lively and quick, evoking a great urban folklore in which intuitive personal rhythms coalesce into a complex entangled bank leading to frenzy and mania. The fugue subject returning pressed forward rather than upward, with pockets of exhaustion and lucid regret; at the end a determination to continue the dance, leading to a sudden collapse.

In the second half came a seeming world premiere. Beethoven’s E-flat Major Piano Concerto has, of course, been heard before, but this performance felt fresh and new, not at all like a “war horse”. Rather, it presented an exciting confrontation and subsequent mutual embrace between artist and collectivity. Starting in medias res with a brisk, forceful opening, orchestra and piano were fully equal in authority from the start. Helmchen’s playing was supple and fluid yet firm as he pressed the orchestra forward with urgency and energy in an agonistic relationship. The BSO sound was smooth and clean, the horn playing as beautiful as the piano’s. Helmchen shaped the dynamics elegantly within phrases, the soft passages particularly smooth and lyrical, as he delicately plucked the fire from Heaven to share it with us. The Adagio was hypnotic, meditative, gentle and ecstatic, becoming lively and swelling with bliss in the variations. An air of expectancy in the transition blossomed uncontainably into the joyous Rondo, piano and orchestra swept into mutual understanding and love, dancing together now in a celebration of life. Dohnanyi’s reading was strikingly not triumphalist; instead, the momentum grew out of an intense gratitude that brought together the mysterious joy of the creator (piano) with the yearning of the orchestra, their mutual need generating a wonderful concordance, Jacob and the Angel’s struggle now become a dance, “the only dance there is”. The audience and posterity approved the interpretation with a collective standing ovation and thunderous applause.

Leon Golub is an astrophysicist at the Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge and has been a lover of classical music for over 50 years.


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

  1. I’d never before heard Helmchen– or even heard of him. But he is a very stimulating and interesting player. He doesn’t do the weighty bronze tone of some past giants, preferring a lighter and clearer sound. Modern-sounding, but with indication that he’s thought about what is easier to hear with a fortepiano than a Steinway. More of a French sound, perhaps? He was much more flexible and full of humor than Glenn Gould, but had some of that clarity and energy.

    On Saturday’s performance, Dohnanyi wasn’t quite up to the soloist’s alertness. If Helmchen was frisky and mercurial, offering a real dialogue on a new topic using many voices, the orchestra was left slouching on its heels (or other more upholstered regions). They did play awfully well, and they were never out of step with the pianist, but it was more of an accompaniment in the old sense than a real partnership. In those few moments when all of the players could hear the piano and each other clearly, i.e., didn’t need a conductor’s help, they added much more to the conversation.

    It would be interesting to hear Nelsons do a project with this young man.

    Comment by Camilli — November 14, 2015 at 11:50 pm

  2. Camilli: what you heard as an inability to keep up sounded to me like a deliberate artistic choice. The effect was to produce a vision of a lone heroic voice urging the collective forward. That would certainly be in keeping with Beethoven’s view of the role of the artist in bringing about a just society.

    Comment by Leon Golub — November 15, 2015 at 10:28 am

  3. Camilli’s mention of a fortepiano made me laugh, because during the opening cadenza I found myself thinking “this sounds almost like a fortepiano.” I was not thinking of a light, tinkly sound, but of a deep, rich timbre, a sonority with grain in it, as if the huge glistening Steinway was made of wood rather than onyx and obsidian. I liked Helmchen very much, and think both Camilli and Leon Golub capture his virtues well. He was original, but in the same way that the composer is original. He was not particularly imperious, until you realize that the apocryphal French officer who gave the work its unfortunately ineradicable nickname was thinking (in his apocryphal mind), not of some Roman or Holy Roman Emperor, but of the rare Emperor who was also an adventurer. There is a great spirit of adventure and discovery in the work, and this Helmchen captured. I admit I was also well-disposed towards him as soon as he came out looking like some kind of early nineteenth-century Romantic hero, long hair and long tails, slightly abashed, like a young Franz Liszt or Johannes Kreisler.
    I noticed a few times during the concerto that I wasn’t noticing the orchestra. I think Camilli’s point about it being like an accompaniment is dead on. They were doing their jobs, and well, but nor much more.
    The same can not be said for the first half, in which the orchestra was superb. I found the Neuburger work to be fascinating. Like Leon Golub I thought of Debussy, not because of any obvious resemblance, but because like, for example, La Mer, it is best experienced through immersion. Within its sound-world its mulifarious events had an inexplicable logic, a kind of post-facto inevitability. It was a very assured work for a twenty-eight-year-old composer with little previous experience writing for a full orchestra, and presumably few previous opportunities to work with one.

    Comment by SamW — November 15, 2015 at 10:35 am

  4. The problem is that there is too much music.

    So far this season, I’ve attended five BSO concerts. In three of them, there was a first performance of a new piece: one their first performance of a piece they had co-commissioned, “Divisions;” another an American premiere of a co-commission, “Mannequin;” and, most recently, the world premiere of their commission, “Aube” (to say nothing of the Tchaikovsky and Elgar pieces they had either never performed or never in Symphony Hall). There may be some recent music which readily discloses its value to non-musicians, but for me and, I suppose, many others, multiple hearings are needed before I really know it well enough to have a solid opinion.

    All I can say of these three new pieces which are, in a way, the BSO’s “babies” is that they were not unpleasant to listen to, and that they seemed to fit the composers’ concepts. But when, amid all the standard repertory and the recording cycles, will the orchestra perform these pieces enough for us to become familiar with them?

    Management should make it a rule that every new piece they perform must be presented again in subscription concerts within three years and once more within another six years (twice in the case of works they commissioned).

    Most of the music on this year’s subscription programs is worth playing, But I don’t think we need Petrushka again so soon; ditto, the Organ Concerto, Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini,La Mer, and La Valse. If it weren’t for the Shakespeare festival, there’d be no need for the Romeo and Juliets. As for Rapsodie espagnole: does the BSO play it too often, or is it just WCRB?

    Last season saw the BSO perform pieces by Dean, Ešenvalds, Dorman, Birtwistle, Gandolfi, Schuller, and Adès for the first time. How many will they do again in Boston during my lifetime, to say nothing of within the next couple of years? How many times will they give us more Strauss tone poems or Tchaikovsky 5th and 6th before we can hear this and last years’ new music? It’s not that I don’t like the classics. I want to hear the Beethoven symphonies (except the 4th) and concertos, Mozart, Schubert, Berlioz, and Mendelssohn in Symphony Hall. I’d just like additional chances to hear (most of) this new music.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — November 15, 2015 at 11:19 pm

  5. hear!

    >> don’t think we need Petrushka again so soon; ditto, the Organ Concerto, Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini,La Mer, and La Valse.


    Comment by David Moran — November 15, 2015 at 11:57 pm

  6. Also hear. Though I’d love to hear Neuburger’s Aube on a program with La Mer.

    Comment by SamW — November 16, 2015 at 6:29 pm

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