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BUSO Fills Symphony Hall with Fine Sounds


Ken David Masur (file photo)
Ken David Masur (file photo)

Symphony Hall always shows Boston University Symphony Orchestra to good effect. For many years under David Hoose’s able leadership it had given fine performances of major masterpieces. The new director Ken-David Masur, son of the late Kurt Masur, has shown his mettle from the start.

The forceful staccato Allegro moderato beginning of Haydn’s Symphony no. 95 in C Minor recalls the similar opening of the “Trauersymphonie” in E Minor, no. 44. Masur kept the ensemble taut and crisp in the attacks of the dotted rhythms; I thought that the crescendo-decrescendo accents were overdone and not what Haydn might have called for, but that was my only disagreement. Masur preferred, in fact, to emphasize the contrast between forte and piano in all four movements, always convincingly and to good effect. The Andante second movement is a set of four variations in E-flat major, with one minore, in 6/8. The Minuet that follows is strong and declarative, and I’m convinced that it had an influence on the c minor minuet in Schubert’s Second Symphony. It is unusual in that the entire Trio section is a solo for cello (Daniel Dickson, principal), with pizzicato strings accompanying. The finale, in C major, a Vivace, alla breve, discloses some elegant contrapuntal development. I remembered vividly the last time I heard this brave work in Symphony Hall, in January 1960, with the Boston Symphony conducted by Aaron Copland.

Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler Symphony of 1934, in three relatively short movements, derived from scenes in his opera of the same title about the life of the 16th-century painter Matthias Grünewald, has been well known as one of Hindemith’s relatively few major works for orchestra, but today it is probably performed much less often than when it first appeared as an important tonal work by a German composer later than Richard Strauss. The story of the opera itself has some parallels with Hindemith’s own experience in confronting and then self-exiling from the hostility of the Nazi regime; the opera premiered in Zurich in 1938, shortly before the composer moved to the United States. I’ve always disliked its relatively colorless and directionless tonality, notwithstanding that said tonality is well structured. But there’s a great deal in it that is admirable: the well-shaped melodic lines that are contrapuntally controlled with total skill; the flawless orchestral style, for an ensemble such as Brahms might have used, with textures frequently reduced to just two lines in octaves; the lively rhythmic conception.  There are three movements; the first, Engelkonzert (Angelic concert), is marked on the first page with a stately melody in 9/4 meter (with a well-known resemblance to “Blow the man down”) for unison trombones (Alexander Knutrud, principal), marked “Es sungen drei Engel” (Three angels were singing), which is the beginning of a poem from the Knaben Wunderhorn collection that Mahler used in his Third Symphony. The three angels seem to be three different themes that are developed in the Lebhaft that follows. The flute has a specially pronounced role in this movement, and Hayley Miller, principal, carried it through fearlessly The second movement, Grablegung (Entombment), is short and mostly quietly ruminative, as though a calm before the storm. The finale, Versuchung des heiligen Antonius (Temptation of St. Anthony), begins with a recitative-like slow introduction, followed by a series of episodes, Sehr lebhaft, that display fanfares, marches, and a culminating descant from plainchant, the sequence Lauda Sion (p. 945 in your Liber usualis; Hindemith’s version has some differences), plus a final Alleluia chorale. The titles refer to the Isenheim Altarpiece that is generally considered Grünewald’s greatest work.

The Boston University Symphony gave a brilliant reading of Hindemith’s work. The principals had plenty of bright solo work, but the ensemble was expertly coordinated and balanced. Masur commanded them all with complete confidence and reassurance.

For the closer we heard Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, composed in 1943 on commission from the Koussevitzky Foundation and premiered by the Boston Symphony. At the time he wrote it, Bartók was already seriously ill with the leukemia that would carry him off two years later. It is fashionable to regard the Concerto for Orchestra as the fading gesture of a dying man, and it does show some formal weakness, particularly in the finale. But it remains very popular for good reason: it overflows with melody and orchestral brilliance; it reveals a good deal of formal ingenuity; and it has a rhythmic and contrapuntal vitality throughout that is worthy of the best of Bartók’s Magyar individuality, as in the Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion or the Music for Strings,P and Celesta. It is called “Concerto” because all of the major instruments and groups of instruments have continuous opportunities for soloistic display. The BU Symphony played with love as well as expertise. The brass fanfares in the first movement were outstanding; likewise the high trumpets in the finale (the high D-flat  held no terrors for Rebecca Oliverio, principal); the woodwind tracery in the third movement (Elegia) very like Ravel’s in fine detail; the fluttertongued Bronx cheers in the “Interrupted Intermezzo” effectively scornful of Shostakovich’s “Leningrad” Symphony, which supposedly inspired Bartók (with annoyance) after he heard it on the radio.

Masur conducts BUSO (Samuel Brewer photo)
Masur conducts BUSO (Samuel Brewer photo)

The second movement, Giuoco delle coppie (Game of pairs), is the most simply structured, and at the same time the most tightly formal, of the five movements, and it illustrates the showcasing principle perfectly. The pairs are bassoons (in parallel minor sixths), oboes (minor thirds), clarinets (minor sevenths), flutes (fifths), and muted trumpets (major seconds). After a middle section, a chorale for brass, there is a formal da capo, but with added texture, even the pairs themselves being paired (oboes with clarinets, flutes with clarinets), and a thicker but softer accompaniment. All of the wind players in this witty movement sparkled with bright sound, and even the snare drum (with snares off) could take a bow.

Thanksgiving week is probably not the best time to schedule any kind of concert in Symphony Hall; this was a Monday night, many BU students who might otherwise have been there probably went home early for Thanksgiving break, and the hall was only about one-quarter filled. A pity, since this handsome concert rose to some of the highest standards our profession can demand, and amply testified to the full musicality and excellent quality of sound that can be heard regularly outside of our flagship orchestra.

Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert in Alban Berg, also Ravel and Debussy. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (PhD, 1967), he has published extensively on these composers and many music subjects, most notably, harmony.

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