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BSO Continues Shakespeare Salute


Last night Andris Nelsons led the BSO in the second of their concerts marking the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, focused this time on Hamlet in the first half, with music by Shostakovich and Abrahamsen, (both new to BSO) and on Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet in the second; since the composer conducted it in Symphony Hall in 1938 it has returned repeatedly.

The opening excerpts from Shostakovich’s Incidental Music to Hamlet sketch a musical narrative of the play. Though composed for a 1932 avant-garde production, which may not have been decorous (it seemed quite the theatrical romp), the music hews closer to the bone. In lieu of the 13-movement suite later selected by the composer, we heard seven. The Introduction opens cinematically with a happy fanfare full of brass; the darker, minor-keyed second theme and the Night Watch are driven by the woodwinds. With the Funeral March we enter the familiar sound world of Shostakovich: a rising, aspirational theme in the brass leads into gorgeously dissonant harmonies voiced by the full orchestra, wherein tragedy retains a whiff of the circus. Here the tempi felt just a bit too slow. The Flourish and Dance Music and Hunt feature antiphonal writing from front to back of the orchestra; here the performance did not quite gel, the sections being slightly discombobulated—at least from the perspective of the hall. Ophelia’s Song, a scherzo, comes with lovely, meandering, full of rubato and a certain destabilizing aspect not unlike the character. An Adagio for the principal string players takes the form of a haunting and ethereal lullaby. The last excerpt, Requiem, builds in intensity until the final chord, a cruel and long-fought passing.

After a re-set, soprano Barbara Hannigan joined the orchestra for Hans Abrahamsen’s let me tell you (2012-13). Commissioned by Stiftung Berliner Philharmoniker with support from the Danish Arts Foundation, it is dedicated to Hannigan and conceived for her as performer. Nelsons led the premiere in Berlin at the end of 2013; the US première took place a few weeks ago in Cleveland. This thirty-minute song cycle is the first BSO ascent of a score by Abrahamsen, and they began their journey with this 2015 Grawemeyer Award winning score. Setting seven texts, distributed in three sections, from Paul Griffiths novel, it explores the character of Ophelia. Griffiths wrote a novella using only the 480 or so words Shakespeare attributes to her. The three sections explore issues of memory and time, of love, and of a “snow landscape” (the latter encompassing physical, metaphysical, and metaphorical frozen hivernal precipitation). Abrahamsen invites us to be one with Ophelia. From the beginning, launching into the text “Let me tell you how it was,” the words are stretched: listeners fight to find meaning. Monteverdian stile concitato meets the contemporary world. The voice becomes more an instrument of sound, disembodied and separate from signification. We are in a soundscape that resembles a more dissonant Pärt, or more body-full spectralist Saariaho. More sudden changes of dynamic, register, timbre mark this music. The first piece segues into the second attaca, wherein words, notes bounce as though a rubber ball then, “with some things” the music turns spikier. The third, “There was a time, I remember,” begins with a quiet rumbling, the establishment of a rhythmic pulse, literally re-enacting the “time, I remember, when we had no music” of the text, before turning, bending, torquing the music. The middle section, starting with “Let me tell you how it is,” serves as a musical bridge; as harmless Ophelia defies expectations, her music flirts with familiarity. “Now I do not mind” really bites—sharper punctuations abound as though depicting Ophelia’s shredding of the veils of propriety and societal decorum. Cross-rhythms class against one another as Ophelia clashes against other characters in her entrapping text. As words turn to glass the orchestration turns hyaline. Repose is illusory. The snowy final section, “I know you are there” and “I will go out now,” is of a different facet. The music has a bleakness and a beauty to it, capturing a tundral landscape, falling snow (gentle to icy pings), the calm sussuration (paper on drum) of a muffled, enrobed landscape or a muddled mind, the words an ontological proposition, a performative enunciation. The harmonic fight of natural tuning across octaves and registers paints Ophelia’s fight. “I will go on” it ends. And Andris Nelsons held on as though to go on.

Barbara Hannigan adn Andris Nelsons with rapt BSO (Michael Blanchard photo)
Barbara Hannigan and Andris Nelsons with rapt BSO (Michael Blanchard photo)

Sometime after composing his Romeo and Juliet for the Mariinsky Theater, Prokofiev assembled three suites. Last night, Nelsons commingled movements from all three vignettes. Shakespeare’s narratives met Bowdler; the music here finds itself less vivid to the plot. Familiar are the musical themes, but the structure, less so. The same could be said for the composer’s own selections. The synopsis by Adrian Piotrovsky and Sergey Radlov altered the tragic double-suicide ending, creating what even the composer soon acknowledged was a mistake (soon thereafter rectified) and which Arlene Croce memorably called “a dramaturgical nightmare.” If Radlov and company’s version had prevailed, bridges the world over might not be overwhelmed with locks.)

Perhaps this dramatic lapse explains why Prokofiev’s ballet is more commonly incarnated in concert halls. Nelsons’s suite dives into a vibrant Morning Dance (bardic Verona populated more to the scale of Moscow from the sounds of this thronging number). Then we enter the world of warfare between Montagues and Capulets. The indubitably Russian love-theme here portrays the problem of passion passing political party-lines with portentous patriarchs pontificating ponderously as doe-eyed youths ignite with love’s flames. “Juliet the Young Girl” is flighty, even as grounded. “The Street Awakens,” quintessential morning music, provides an answer and an homage to Grieg’s Peer Gynt; it expresses quiescence before the day’s scurrying hubbub takes hold. Lusty and popular dances contrast music of agitation suffused with the stress of subterfuge: the tragedy advances a-pace, even as Minuet assumes the guise of a danse macabre. Love finds its expression in the suspension and rubato, a dance out of time. Like all fables of love a-thwart, must needs suspend society’s constraints for a magical soirée. A later glimpse of Romeo and Juliet as they part returns us to the world of Tchaikovsky (and sets the stage for Doctor Zhivago). Blood is to be shed, even in a happier iteration of this romantic tragedy, so to “The Death of Tybalt” we go, joining the jazzy braggart swaggering down the street, full of vivacious fun. Until he is not. Musical ideas recur throughout Prokofiev’s score; in its entirety (oddities of plot aside) this score was most assuredly written as a unified whole. It would be great to hear in its entirety one day, even resurrected in the original choreography, to appreciate this composition which is now, in part, so familiar yet not without surprises.

Cashman Kerr Prince, trained in Classics and Comparative Literature, is now a Visiting Scholar in the Department of Classical Studies at Wellesley College. He is also a cellist of some accomplishment, currently playing with the Brookline Symphony Orchestra.

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  1. I agree that the entire score of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet is well worth hearing, and I fondly remember the live BSO performances that preceded Seiji Ozawa’s recording for Deutsche Grammophon. Boston has also seen several danced performances by the Boston Ballet, which I’ve enjoyed. Their current repertory includes John Cranko’s successful version, and it’s well worth catching the next time they mount it.

    Comment by Stephen H. Owades — February 7, 2016 at 3:54 pm

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