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BSO/Charles Dutoit/Yo-Yo Ma Bring Brits


The urbane, world-traveling, Swiss-born Charles Dutoit has the BSO on his busy schedule for the next two weeks, and on the basis of many strengths evident in last night’s concert, readers would be well advised to hear the orchestra while he’s here. Last night’s music by British composers William Walton, Edward Elgar and Gustav Holst provided powerful lessons in the heroic and honed. Yo-Yo Ma, the admirable virtuoso and all-consuming seer into everything within his orbit, gave a penetrating and soulful account of Edward Elgar’s 1919 Concerto in E Minor for Cello and Orchestra, Opus 85.

Annotator Hugh Macdonald wrote:

We may discern in the Cello Concerto a sentiment of resignation and even despair generated from within by that strong vein of melancholy that had always been an inescapable element of Elgar’s music, and from without by the desolating impact of the Great War. But the Cello Concerto is not a threnody, nor even…a deliberately planned swansong.  It is reflective, playful, tearful, and energetic by turns, like all his best music…

Just so. And it is this chameleon-like character that can render certain lesser performances of this music unduly episodic. No chance of that with Dutoit and Ma.  The two were as of one mind about this music, remaining always in touch with one another, taking visual cues from each other in the form of an arched eyebrow and a knowing sympathy of thought on a mutual path of music making. Watching the orchestra’s response to Ma’s glances in their direction added further delight.  Ma admirably altered the timbre of his cello at certain points to match the timbre of a dovetailing instrumental line, such as at one moment, a flute solo, or at several other moments, when he purposely opened up his Moes and Moes-built cello’s low strings’ resonances to greet the entire double-bass section. Ma’s sympathy of thought makes him a pluperfect collaborator.

The cellist gave the most coherent and convincing take this listener has heard in concert. Cello fans, hie thee hence for the remainder this run!

The concert had opened with a zesty and bracing reading of the fiendishly busy Overture, Portsmouth Point (1925) of William Walton, which the BSO first played under Serge Koussevitzky in Symphony Hall November 19, 1926, 90 years ago almost to the day. One wonders how last night’s crackling exhibition might have compared with that earlier one. The hyperactivity begins with the downbeat and doesn’t quit until the final cadence. Only a couple of fleeting moments betrayed a bit of unfamiliarity with this score, which the orchestra last performed under Richard Burgin in 1941. By this weekend I’ll wager the orchestra’s performance will be flawless.

How remarkably forward looking work was Gustav Holst’s Op. 32 Suite The Planets when it arrived in its completed version in London under Albert Coates on November 15, 1920, a full 96 years ago. No less today do we admire its bold and unconventional orchestrations and exotic melodies, its wide breadth of emotion, and its human as well as its ethereal connections. One became totally immersed, reveling in the impact of the many fff moments and relishing the intricate workings of the inner details.

Imitations of Morse code signaling repeating in the violin, along with the subsequent imitative glockenspiel notes coming early in the Mercury, the Winged Messenger gave much amused enjoyment. The tympani beats a similar repeated pattern later. Could this latter be suggestive of native drumming, another form of messaging sent though the ether?

I note with pleasure:

  • the brutal and endlessly repeated tritone-pitched poundings in 5/4 meter of Mars, The Bringer of War, emblematic, one presumes, of the senseless and mindless brutality of seemingly unending cosmic and earthly combat…
  • the joy and irrepressible spirit of Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity, which strides along carefree and confident, pausing only at its center to frame a melody that hints of a higher plane of nobility and promise which later Holst reused, first as a patriotic song created in 1921 and set to the verse of Sir Cecil Spring Rice, and later published in 1926 as a hymn “I Vow to Thee, My Country,” whereafter it was regularly sung at Armistice memorial ceremonies.  As such it has become as inextricably woven into the fabric of British hymnody as Parry’s contemporaneous Jerusalem.
  • the incessant flute and harp ostinati at the beginning of Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age, later imitated by two tubular bells and then answered in titanic volume by the entire orchestra, all tolling the inexorable passing of time…
  • the hypnotic spinning of the atmospheres of far-distant worlds heard in Neptune, the Mystic, where the diaphanous orchestration is bedecked with sparkling starlight points of light played from the celesta. Then, at its end, Holst’s crowning effect – the singing and slowly fading away choir of distant female voices, endlessly repeating an oscillating 5/4 measure of 7-part harmony which Holst notes in his score “…are to be repeated until the sound is lost in the distance.”
  • the 29 women from the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, prepared by Guest Chorus Conductor Lisa Graham, were appropriately distant and sirenic.
Charles Dutoit and Yo Yo Ma (Robert Torres photo)
Charles Dutoit and Yo Yo Ma (Robert Torres photo)

Kudos to many of the orchestra’s outstanding instrumentalists:

  • Mike Roylance, for his mastery of the exposed tenor tuba solo early in Mars
  • James Somerville, Principal Horn, for his repeated rising four-note solos in Venus
  • Timothy Genis, whose timpani virtuosity throughout, especially in Uranus, the Magician, was breathlessly essayed
  • Malcolm Lowe, BSO Concertmaster, for many elegant solos
  • Martha Babcock, Acting Principal Cello, for her heartfelt spotlight moments
  • The entire brass section, with every member playing above and beyond in color, depth and with “grace under fire”
  • James David Christie, organ, and the  bass section, whose deep and soulful underpinnings were felt as well as heard

Charles Dutoit, who knows this music thoroughly and recorded it in a highly acclaimed performance with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, made an ideal communicator, and the orchestra appeared completely engaged with his many demands. His tempi were ideal, his pacing impeccable, his shading of dynamics skilled and nuanced. His many subtle rubati, paced to wonderful effect in the Elgar Concerto, were again abundant the powerful exposition of The Planets. I would not miss the remaining opportunity to hear this magical score in this masterful interpretation.

John W. Ehrlich is music director of Spectrum Singers, which he founded 37 years ago. He has been a singer and conductor in the Boston area for more than 45 years.


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

  1. Hye thee hence? Come on. It’s the 21st c.

    Comment by rlhevinne — October 21, 2016 at 9:30 pm

  2. A terrific review of a terrific concert. Thanks!
    I got a jump seat (right side) for this — our subscription seats are front orchestra — and I’m glad I did. I would never have been able to see all the goings on of the percussionists in The Planets from the floor. It was good fun to watch one of the musicians playing the cymbals switch off to the tambourine, moisten his fingers four or four times, then get the perfect strike and shake on that instrument. Then, he’d switch back to the cymbals, then back to the tambourine again. A lot of intricate activity and movement in the back left section of the orchestra in that work.

    Comment by edente — October 21, 2016 at 11:54 pm

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