Symphony Hall was nearly full on Monday night for a superb concert by the Boston University Symphony Orchestra and Chorus—call it Old Home Week if you will—but the performances would surely have been cherished by those who missed them.
Gabriel Fauré’s beloved Requiem (my recent review of a fine rendition with choir and organ at Christ Church in Cambridge is here) constituted the first half. Last night’s expert and loving performance, the first I had heard in decades with orchestra, reawakened me to the subtleties of its instrumental sound. The score itself shows an unusual distribution. First and second violins play in unison throughout, and are notated on one staff. But there are first and second violas and first and second cellos, on separate staves. In recognition of this, the violas (ten in all) were seated on the front of the stage on the left, directly opposite the ten cellos on the right; the violins were behind the violas. This arrangement made for a particularly subdued but beautifully blended string sound with the chorus, which of course was far to the rear but wouldn’t have been covered by prominent violins. In fact, the violins are entirely silent in the first two movements, the Kyrie and the Offertory, and their first appearance is in the Sanctus, where they play the Te decet hymnus melody that was first heard in the Kyrie and that reappears cyclically—in a different meter—in the Offertory. The wind complement includes pairs of flutes, clarinets and bassoons, and a full brass section that is used very sparingly; timpani appear only in the drumbeat of the Libera me. To contrast with the diminished role for winds, the organ gets some prominent soli as well as a continuo; the most notable of these is in the final In paradisum, where in the initial measures short melodic staccati imitate a harp; Kevin Neel’s choice of soft 8′ and 4′ flutes was perfect for this, especially when the two actual harps joined in the texture midway through the movement.
Benjamin C. Taylor made a strong and very clear baritone in the Hostias and the Libera me; one would like to hear him as Don Giovanni. Ruby White, despite too much vibrato, sang the Pie Jesu with intelligence and nice expression. Scott Allen Jarrett’s control of dynamics and tempi achieved perfection.
Stravinsky’s Perséphone, first performed in 1934 at the time the exiled Russian composer acquired French citizenship, has always been considered one of his most inaccessible works, along with such relatively unpopular items as Mavra and the Concerto for Two Pianos Soli. Perséphone is long—50 minutes—and mostly slow, and sometimes even ponderous with heavy walking bass. Its relative austerity, in approximation of classical Grecian balance, is offset with an effeminate choral style and passages of divisi strings that come dangerously close to dainty sentimentality. André Gide’s modern adaptation of the complex legends surrounding the cult of Demeter and what became the Eleusinian Mysteries resulted in a text that many might regard as too precious. As a melodrama, with the title character appearing only as a speaking voice, Perséphone belies the full-voiced Stravinsky style we all know and love; Debussy had similarly disconcerted his audiences in 1911 with D’Annunzio’s Le martyre de Saint-Sébastien. (Stravinsky himself decided in the 1950s that the melodrama style had been a mistake; when Craft asked him about it, he replied, “Do not ask. Sins cannot be undone, only forgiven.” Nevertheless he again changed his mind in his last twelve-tone works, including The Flood, another melodrama, of 1962.) And there’s no doubt that Stravinsky’s insistence on forcing the normal accentuation of French text into the unnatural rhythms of the melodic line would seem wrong to native French speakers—it certainly upset André Gide, who refused to hear the performances. For his part, Stravinsky eventually grew to dislike the Perséphone text (“vers de caramel,” Craft quotes him as saying); we can’t be sure whether this was because of his falling-out with Gide, or not.
And yet, hearing a truly stunning performance of Perséphone last night, magnificently directed by David Hoose, left me convinced totally of its manifold and mysterious beauty; apparently I simply had not known the work properly after hearing it for the first time in October 1963 with the Philadelphia Orchestra directed by the composer and Vera Zorina in the title role. Preparing for last night’s concert I listened to the composer’s own recording with the Columbia Symphony Orchestra, the Ithaca College Choir and the Gregg Smith Singers. Neither of these prior experiences reflected the vividness of Stravinsky’s beautiful and meticulously crafted score, which reveals exactly the kind of originality of sound we expect from one whose greatness had long been known. Every moment of last night’s performance was crystal-clear and precise, and it was possible to hear subtleties of harmony and fine instrumental sound that the recording, authoritative though it may be, simply didn’t have.
The narrative role of Eumolpus, the Eleusinian priest, requires a strong and agile tenor voice, and it found it in Yeghishe Manucharyan, who projected very well with a clear, bright sound. Sometimes his voiced mute-e endings were too prominent, as in “Persépho-ne confu-se / Se refu-se” which came out as “Persépho-na confu-sa / Se refu-sa”, as though he were enunciating in preterit—but this happened only occasionally and is a minor complaint. Sara Heaton spoke a smooth, clear French with a flawless Parisian accent, and, unlike the récitante in Stravinsky’s recording, never got ahead of the music accompanying her. The French diction of the chorus was very clear also, so that one could make out every word. Kudos of the evening, though, should go especially to the orchestra, which performed expertly and even heroically, but above all with lovely sound, guided by David Hoose with complete and unruffled control and with total economy of gesture. Many players got well-deserved bows afterward the horn section, even the contrabassoon, who supported his smaller brothers with assurance. It was rather hard to hear the harps, which most often played in the lowest register with sons étouffés—the fingers damping the notes as soon as they are played. But Stravinsky is the one to blame for that. (He does the same thing in The Fairy’s Kiss.)
Some passages were particularly outstanding in sound: from no. 74 (“Sur ce lit elle repose…”), with multiple ostinati in voices and string harmonics; dotted rhythms in the strings at no. 59 that recall Stravinsky’s own Apollo; the chattering bassoons and cellos in the long interlude after no. 124; the overlapping harp-timpani patterns from no. 207; the closely-textured C major chords with only C and E and (barely audible) B, spaced in harps and piano; the strings in limpid parallel sixths in B-flat major near the end (no. 224). (Does anyone agree that there’s an uncanny resemblance of the passage at no. 137, “Viens, Mercure!” to the sudden appearance of the god Mercury at the very end of Act IV of Berlioz’s Les Troyens? Stravinsky would be very unlikely to have known this passage.) These are constant reminders of the protean variety that Stravinsky has to offer over more than six decades of composing. There are plenty of us who like, or at least respect, only the “really Russian” Stravinsky, of the early ballets and l’Histoire du soldat and Svádebka—excuse me, Les noces; others feel at home only with the twelve-tone works, from Movements on; some prefer The Rake’s Progress to any other work composed by anyone in the twentieth century; and Stravinsky’s so-called neoclassical period, which represents more years in his life than any other, may actually be the most neglected in public awareness. But even the most infrequently-heard, like Perséphone, or the least honored, like Jeu de cartes or Scènes de ballet, never fail to reveal the hand of a great master.
The program booklet for the concert memorialized Joel Sheveloff, who died recently at age 80, after 46 years as a professor at Boston University. An authority on such different masters as Scarlatti, Musorgsky, and Ravel, and the author of a significant study of Bach’s Musical Offering, he was the advisor to a seemingly countless number of theses and dissertations and a beloved mentor to two generations of graduate students. Yes, he once taught a course of the neoclassical Stravinsky, and would surely have loved this Perséphone. Well known by his internet handle, “Trotskii,” he was a good friend to everyone in the Boston community of musicologists, including me, whom he once hired to teach a graduate seminar on Berg several years after I retired from Tufts. We will all miss him profoundly.