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Themed Programs? Play On!


For the third installment of concerts linked to the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, Music Director Andris Nelsons chose four accessible works: a tone-poem by Strauss, an overture by Dvořák, the overture-fantasy by Tchaikovsky, and a world premiere of four sonnet-themed tone poems by George Tsontakis for BSO English horn player, Robert Sheena.

Replete with many fans of Sheena, Thursday’s concert produced palpable joy in the nearly full house; no doubt many had heard of the success of the earlier two programs of Shakespeare-related music. The large orchestra sounded superb throughout, and judging by the reaction, the new work, “Sonnets” for English Horn and Orchestra made a complete success.

Macbeth, Tone-poem for full Orchestra (After Shakespeare’s drama), Opus 23 opened rather dramatically. This would be only the second occasion the Boston Symphony had done it, and I was glad to make its acquaintance.  Richard Strauss’s filled his Macbeth with influences of Liszt, Wagner, and Berlioz. Overwrought with post-Wagnerian romanticism and chromaticism;  Macbeth  also involves complex program, involving the title character  and his wife, the arrival at their castle, Macbeth’s defeat and death, Macduff’s victory, and more, most of which eluded me. Just a few years after this piece, Strauss composed Don Juan, which echoes its literary source with much stronger verisimilitude. Lady Macbeth, is the first in the series of Straussian neurotics that culminated two decades later in Salome and Elektra. One can hear various rhythmic and harmonic suggestions of later Strauss, and, I think, deserves a hearing more than every 50 years.

Dvořák’s lovely Othello Overture, Opus 93 (1892) appears much less frequently than its sibling overture, Carnival. The composer thought of Love and The Tragic as possible titles before settling on Othello. Leon Botstein tells that Dvořák made eleven pencil notations, beginning a third the way through the piece, that indicated where the music represents the tragic events in the play. According to those notes, the toxic relationship of Othello and Desdemona is at the music’s heart. In editing and proofreading prior to publication, Brahms showed particular admiration. It’s not fair to single out one player because everyone played with such panache, beauty, and distinction, but harpist Jessica Zhou, here and in the next two pieces, performed with great sensitivity and hypnotic beauty.

Composer George Tsontakis, BSO principal English-horn, Robert-Sheena, and Andris-Nelsons, (Liza Voll photo)
Composer George Tsontakis, BSO principal English-horn, Robert-Sheena, and Andris-Nelsons, (Liza Voll photo)

After intermission, English horn player Robert Sheena, in the BSO since 1994, took the solo part in the world premiere of Sonnets, Tone Poems for English Horn and Orchestra by George Tsontakis, who for no apparent reason after this complete success, had never been heard before with the BSO. Sheena wrote that the idea for this commission began as “James Levine and BSO Artistic Administrator Tony Fogg ingeniously tied it to the Shakespeare anniversary. . . . few BSO members have a new work commissioned on their behalf.” This is a serious understatement. Sheena has actually had works by four other composers written for him (Daniel Pinkham, Gabriel Gould, William Pfaff, and Marti Epstein), while his instrument, once among the least well-represented in the wind family, has been attracting an interesting array of composers again lately; Aaron Jay Kerness, Ned Rorem, Bruno Madera, Vincent Persichetti, and others, have raised the profile of this beguiling instrument, which Sheena plays absolutely wonderfully. Tsontakis, who teaches at Bard and who has won a large clutch of important awards, has written a piece that is not just eloquent for the English horn, but also for the whole orchestra, which on this outing featured an array percussion including snare drum, military drum, bass drum, brake drums, mark tree, ratchet, sandpaper, sizzle cymbal, wind chimes, correlates, glockenspiel, marimba and vibraphone.

A brilliant colorist, the composer set these responses to sonnets 30, 12, 60 and 75 with uncanny cleverness and craft.  “The first three [movements] are somewhat abstract,” In his conversations with the BSO annotator Robert Kirzinger, Sheena that he wrote for the character or atmosphere of each sonnet and the instruments’ strengths. For example, Sonnet no. 30 (movement 1) speaks to regret and longing, but also hopefulness. The opening English horn soliloquy in that movement is full of longing. However, the last sonnet Tsontakis set (no. 75), a love sonnet, is more like writing a melody to text and then removing the text, a literal song-without-words.” The whole piece he describes as “unfolding lines of haunting melody with mysterious, deeply, darkly beautiful harmony.” Tsontakis aimed not to “set” these four sonnets, but “to respond to their complex, sometimes obscure and mercurial imagery.” The harp, again, plays a major part, often accompanied by one of the percussion instruments. This is a gorgeous piece, played with great panache by Robert Sheena, whom I now credit and thank for one of the loveliest new pieces I’ve heard in a long time. Bravo to Sheena and Tsontakis, a composer I already, after one piece, cherish. A BMInt feature with texts of the related sonnets is here.

Finally, Tchaikovsky’s 1869 Romeo and Juliet, a fantasy-overture, condensed a five-act tragedy into 18 well-known minutes. Its wonderful tunes, and smashing orchestration elicited a rousing performance. Nelsons and the responsive players did themselves proud. The success of the three Bard-themed concerts should convince BSO management to take more chances.

Susan Miron is a book critic, essayist, and harpist. Her last two CDs featured her transcriptions of keyboard music of Domenico Scarlatti.

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  1. Nearly full? There were many more empty seats than usual for a Thursday night.

    Comment by GP — February 12, 2016 at 5:13 pm

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