On Thursday night, the BSO under guest conductor Stéphane Denève offered a riveting and absolutely cathartic selection of three carefully chosen works. Transcending death was the theme of both Jennifer Higdon’s blue cathedral and John Williams’ Violin Concerto (1974). Saint-Saens’ majestic Symphony No. 3 (“Organ Symphony”) more than redressed the balance with resolve and determination.
Jennifer Higdon’s strikingly beautiful and widely played blue cathedral finally came to Symphony Hall on this night. Even without consideration of the composer’s narrative, the piece would work as a poignant tone poem. The evocative melodies presented by first by the flute, and then the clarinet do strike us as a personal expression, even if we don’t think of the flute as Higdon herself, and the clarinet as her brother, who died following an acute illness in 1998. The shimmering, delicate percussion and warm (like sunshine) string chords at the beginning bathed the scene in an exquisite atmosphere. The rising waves of emotion build in intensity and include anger, underscored by dramatic use of the percussion and brass. This was a moment where I wished I was sitting in the balcony (instead of the orchestra section), so I could get blasted with more of the visceral edge of that sound. The peroration (recalling the poignant melody in the flute, and then finally the clarinet) again brought back the filigree of the percussion, this time with the special addition of small Chinese bells (balls that were shaken by the string players) and wine-glasses that were filled with water that were gently vibrated by the trombonists in the final peroration. It was truly a magical effect and a breath-taking and transcendent journey. Of course, I couldn’t see the trombone players (again, I wished I was sitting in the balcony), but I could hear the ringing sound and knew about them from this excellent video of the NEC Youth orchestra playing the work [here].
Also serious and poignant, John Williams’ Violin Concerto, stands as one of the first of his many concertos. Suggested by his wife, actress Barbara Ruick, in 1974, Williams then dedicated the work to her following her sudden death from a stroke. Violinist Gil Shaham’s playing was spectacular, offering a spectrum of emotions and timbres that gave complete commitment to the performance. When not playing, his expressions of rapture while listening to some of the swirling orchestral passages were transporting in themselves. The first movement begins with a stark violin melody, and once the orchestra enters it eventually reaches a dramatic unison that conveys chiseled anguish in a bold relief. After a thoughtful violin cadenza (a real soliloquy) the woodwinds intertwined in intimate solo lines. The ending seemed a bit unexpected, perhaps quizzical. Well, then we need more to follow.
The second movement, “Slowly (In peaceful contemplation)” begins with a lyrical, poignant melody in the violin, with a dactylic accompaniment so simple as to seem prosaic. A faster middle section offered both swirling and staccato textures exchanged between the ensemble and soloist.
While I enjoyed the last movement, I did have a thought that it went on a little too long for what it had to say—in one of the slower passages, I suddenly asked myself if it was another slow movement (I’ll return to this thought below). But it eventually hurtled to a determined and exciting conclusion.
Conductor Stéphane Denève had begun the concert with a few words about the choice of the program, how the works fit together, and also about the thematic development of the Saint-Saens. I do really love it when conductors break down the “forth wall” and address the audience, especially when they are poised and concise and to the point; Denève was all these, as well as wonderfully warm and appreciative of the orchestra. A lovely and quite simple asymmetrical melodic theme is developed in so much of this Symphony (No. 3, “Organ”) by Saint-Saens. Denève pointed out that it is close to the Gregorian Dies Irae, and then transformed to something like an Ave Maria. The melody is so unobtrusive and singable, with its stepwise motion and a small leap. Saint-Saens explores every angle of this tune, finding its contrapuntal potential, hidden greatness, and also its soaring monumentality. It does help to have the profound reverberations of the organ for this purpose, as well as the shimmering undulations of the piano (four-hands), and a whole panoply of brilliant orchestral color. Organist James David Christie was given several well-deserved bows.
Perhaps more relevant to modern audiences than the (possible) origins of the theme in Gregorian chant, is the later use of the tune in the song “If I had Words” in the movie Babe of 1995. It appears in folk-like a capella simplicity in a central scene, where the farmer sings to the title character, a young pig, in order to infuse the creature with a will to live.
The scene builds to one of several where the full orchestral version of the Maestoso finale is invoked. Playing up this kind of connection is something that can help bring new audiences to classical music. But, in short, the Saint-Saens left me, and the audience, enthused, energized and transported.
The remarkable acoustics of our hall, that make the gentlest murmur of a violin audible in every corner, also make every cough and throat-clearing from the audience audible as well. Denève wanted to move quickly from movements to movement, but people were determined to (OK, they needed to) get in their coughing then. In a world where people increasingly expect everything to be interactive, it’s sometimes hard not view coughing as a form of audience participation; and I also heard what sounded like an anvil clunking to the floor (that seems like an odd thing for someone to have in her briefcase). Of course, there I was doing my “interaction” by scribbling away with old fashioned pen and paper (no “glowing screen,” those are forbidden—except on “Casual Friday,” where such devices are allowed in a back section of the orchestra. I appreciate this creative approach of appealing to the (presumably mostly younger) demographic who wants to remain attached to their devices. But my quibble about the “Casual Friday” version of this concert program (March 18) was that it cut out Jennifer Higdon’s blue cathedral—a piece that surely would appeal to the younger demographic, since Higdon herself is not that far from that age group, and blue cathedral is so widely performed that it is part of the national conversation about classical music that is taking place (in all forms of media). I understand that the “Casual Fridays” want to offer a shorter program, without intermission, but the solution that seems obvious to me would have been to make a cut or two in the Williams concerto; used to the practicalities of the film industry, the composer would likely accept a shorter version. Gil Shaham might be one of the few people to mind, but since he did play with music on a stand, he certainly could adapt to it. Further, in one of the rare instances when a woman composer opens a BSO program, it seems a shame to have her work excluded from part of the run.