Last night’s sold out Boston Philharmonic concert in Jordan Hall contrasted two audience favorites conducted by founding director Benjamin Zander with the Boston premiere of Lera Auerbach’s ten-minute tone poem Icarus, under the direction of BPO Assistant Conductor Benjamin Vickers. This is an orchestra that excels in crystal clear intonation (crucial to the many variations of Rachmaninoff’s Variations on a Theme of Paganini, op. 43) and features notable execution from within every section (most notably, the slower wind solos in Auerbach’s Icarus and the string unisons throughout the program).
Each BPO program this year will begin with a weeknight Discovery Series concert (this week’s was held in Sanders Theater, Cambridge on Thursday, October 20), in which Zander weaves his commentary on the music into the orchestra’s presentation of the music. Video summaries of his thoughts on this program as a whole and on collaborating with pianist Ya-Fei Chuang (on Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody) are available here.
Zander’s thoughtful, impassioned 45-minute remarks preceding this weekend’s concerts provided a verbal tour through major themes of the evening’s three works, including short excerpts played from a keyboard. His remarks on Tchaikovsky and his Symphony No. 6 telegraphed what he would bring out the most in his own interpretation: “moments of radiance … without consolation” created by “escaping into the ballet” through Tchaikovsky’s “limping, broken waltz in 5/4, stuck in two-bar units,” followed by “fifty-five bars of D [as a bass pedal] in the trio as “the melody pleading against the beat of fate.” He considers the third movement march to be “frigid and full of tension, reaching the limit of human experience,” and called attention to the European orchestral seating plans typical of Tchaikovsky’s time in which the first and second violins were placed on opposite sides of the stage, allowing the composer to develop melodies that must be passed back and forth across the stage to be completely realized (trading notes between the two violin sections). The acoustics of Jordan Hall certainly gave precedence to the violin sound throughout the evening, and led to balance problems in the Rachmaninoff, as they often overpowered the piano soloist.
Lera Auerbach is making her name as a ballet composer, having achieved recent successes with choreographer John Neumeier, the Netherlands Dance Theater, and almost a dozen other ballet companies (largely in Europe). Her two requiems, two operas (Gogol, and The Blind) and 2012 oratorio In Praise of Peace, written for the 20th anniversary of the Verbier Festival show her developing interest in large-scale forms. Her ten-minute tone poem Icarus opened the concert, featuring a large ensemble including two harps, four very busy percussionists, ten cellos and seven basses. Throughout the quickly shifting episodic structure, conductor Benjamin Vickers held the ensemble tightly in check, excelling in creating a transparent, muted sound underneath the many solos and presentations of high harmonics. Standout soloists included concertmaster Jae Lee, bass clarinetist Hunter Bennett, timpanist Edward Meltzer (who seemed to be called on to sustain a ppp timpani roll throughout most of the fluttering contrasts), and guest theremin player Thorwald Jørgensen. Auerbach’s music is conceived abstractly, with titles added later, and the theremin’s tone emerged like a choral voice from the high strings in many sections of the piece (it might remind listeners of the use of wordless chorus so popular in the early 20th century with composers such as Vaughan Williams, Holst, and Debussy). It is structured roughly as a rondo (the refrain being a pulsing section full of Bartók pizzicato attacks from all sections of the strings), followed by a long, gradual ascending section led by the theremin. Since Auerbach is also a published poet, Zander included her writeup, which was more autobiographical than descriptive of the work. [Program notes here]
While it was well written, I would have appreciated a trigger warning at the beginning of her article, as it plunges into programmatic detail and tone painting references, only to say at the very end, that her “evocative title” was chosen after the she finished it, and that “It is fine not to have any images at all, but simply experience the sound” while listening: almost a complete impossibility after being distracted with a retelling of the entire Icarus myth and its relevance to her childhood in Soviet Russia.
Ya Fei Chuang’s playing in the flashy Rhapsody Rachmaninoff wrote for himself warmed and blossomed gradually throughout this popular 15-minute variation set for solo piano and orchestra. At first, her light touch was completely dwarfed by the ensemble, so the first half came across more as chamber music, with the piano in an accompanying role, rather than a concerto-style showpiece. Michael Steinberg’s program notes emphasized the structure and development of the work, [link here] inviting the audience to listen for contrasts between traditional variation structure and Rachmaninoff’s modernist innovations. Some of the syncopated and offbeat playing fell out of time, and a speed which stymied the flutes (who have passages calling for every note to be tongued), but the beautiful series of legato solos from the winds and the perfectly in tune playing of disparate unison countermelodies made this a performance to remember. Chuang shone in an increasingly virtuosic series of cadenzas, bringing Jordan Hall’s Steinway to life with big, spicy flourishes that would have been at home in Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit and Gershwin’s rhapsodies.
Zander seemed to prefer the blurred, impressionistic parts, relaxing the tempo significantly at many points and taking a long time to build up to the famous climax of Rachmaninoff’s “original” D-flat tune in the seventeenth variation. This was a light-hearted, jazzy interpretation, and it provided a much-needed respite from the heavier pillars of Auerbach and Tchaikovsky framing the concert.
Tchaikovsky’s last symphony was the musical highlight of the evening, and lived up to Zander’s characterization of Tchaikovsky as the “most precise and romantic of composers.” The Boston Philharmonic achieved its greatest contrasts and emotional intensity this evening by playing up the changes of tempo (with dozens of tempo markings per movement in some places, this can make or break a performance) and by surging to heights of ffff and depths of pppppp. Both in his footnotes on Michael Steinberg’s program notes [here] and in his pre-concert remarks in Jordan Hall, Zander emphasized specific moments of unusual orchestration (choosing to retain a famously quiet bassoon solo, rather than replacing it with bass clarinet, as most since Hans Richter have done). A five-minute video of the conductor’s thoughts as shared in an interview with Brian Bell, [here] Zander introduced the symphony as “the highpoint of Tchaikovsky’s symphonic career,” and talked about issues during its creation such as emotional stress brought on by an unfortunate marriage and the composer’s rumored suicide. He painted a picture of its second performance, asking us to imagine a “hall draped in black crepe.”
But Zander also prefaced Steinberg’s footnotes (now also found in his published collection The Symphony) with a summary of his own:
Tchaikovsky wrote this, his last symphony, between February and the end of August 1893 and conducted the first performance in the Hall of Nobles, Saint Petersburg, on 28 October, nine days before his death. The second performance, under Eduard Nápravník, took place twenty days later in the same hall as part of a memorial concert. The work is dedicated to Tchaikovsky’s nephew Vladimir (Bob) Davidov.
By choosing to print Steinberg’s extensive essay on the piece, which famously chronicles/debunks the myth of Tchaikovsky’s suicide (in three long paragraphs), and then details the history of the subtitle “Pathétique” (in three paragraphs), Zander was able to present the symphony as a summary of Tchaikovsky’s personal struggles at the close of his career. His conducting engaged the audience in contemplations of melodic, structural, harmonic, and dynamic ways the composer might be trying to represent “suffering, despair, and uplift.”
The BPOs playing of the final movement brought the most emotion of the evening, expressing Zander’s interpretation of the movement as “a dreadful, almost unbearable despair” with a fascinating theme split between the two violin sections, “leading to hysteria and despair” but then, in the unusually quiet ending “defying gravity, pushing himself up.” Zander asks us to hear Tchaikovsky’s music as “humane and noble,” and he paid attention to the silences (both shocking and gently despairing) in order to create an honest and heartbreaking performance. Although few symphonies before this ended quietly (notable exceptions that Tchaikovsky probably never heard being Brahms third symphony, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade and Kitezh, and some of Strauss’ tone poems), the symphony closed with a not-famous, well-balanced coda of strings playing ff with mutes on, evoking “human voices, Russian voices of a choir,” and the gong punctuating the dying heartbeats of Tchaikovsky’s last, and greatest symphony.