Since for many of us this past week has been fraught with free-floating anxiety and despair, the week’s Boston Symphony concert (I attended Friday afternoon) proved the perfect tonic: a sonic sanctuary.
Juanjo Mena, who replaced, on short notice, the indisposed Christoph von Dohnányi, opened with the American premiere of Julian Anderson’s Incantesimi, which featured BSO’s superb English horn player, Robert Sheena. A co-commission by the Boston Symphony, the Berliner Philharmoniker Foundation, and the Royal Society of London, Incantesimi bursts with color, alternately growling and shimmering, with three percussionists performing on, among other things, tubular bells, a large tam-tam, bass tom-tom, a mokubio (miniature woodblock), hyoshigi (kabuki clappers). Under ordinary circumstances, I wouldn’t mention that these performances are partially supported from the invaluable National Endowment for the Arts, but these are, alas, not ordinary times, and it’s unimaginable to think of how impoverished the arts—and we humans—would be if such necessary largess is soon eliminated.
Describing Incantesimi the British composer Julian Anderson writes: “I use five musical ideas that orbit each other in ever differing relationships, somewhat like planets in an orrery. The cor anglais plays a special role with recurring solo lines. The work is a ten-minute span of time on the outside, but it gives a sense of being much more expansive, which is an illusion only music can give.” Incantesimi (an Italian word for “magic spells”) is an increasingly intense slow movement in which the composer uses “five musical ideas that orbit each other in ever differing relationships.” In listening to recordings of the Berlin Philharmonic, Anderson was especially struck by their English horn player, Dominik Wollenweber—hence the thread of English horn melody that runs through much of the piece. Interestingly, it was when the composer was at Tanglewood Music Center in 2015, that he heard the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra with the conductor (who was supposed to conduct these performances), Christoph von Dohnányi, playing the finale of Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony that, Anderson writes, “the finale, in which five musical ideas are combined in brilliant contrapuntal display, triggered the idea of orbiting music objects.”
All this said, it’s a fun, imaginative piece that merits another hearing. The upper strings sounded angelic, the lower strings menacing. But it was Sheena’s exquisite playing that made this performance so very memorable.
Jean-Frédéric Neuburger was the intriguing soloist in Robert Schumann’s beloved Piano Concerto in A Minor, Op. 54. (first performed by the BSO in 1882 at the start of its second season) with, the program tells us, “Mr. Georg Henschel, conductor, and Professor Carl Baermann on a Chickering Piano.” This is such a popular, frequently recorded concerto, that it was interesting to see what Neuburger would bring. It turns out, he quickly banished other famous soloists from my mind. He has a beautiful touch, and a large range of dynamics, the requisite power, delicacy and freedom to make his interpretation persuasive and memorable. The winds were standouts, and Mena presided with élan. Most impressive. Neuburger got—and deserved—a standing ovation; he rewarded us with a captivating encore, the Capriccio from Bach’s Partita #2 in C Minor, BWV 826, played extremely with an extraordinary use of color to delineate voices and rhythmically decisive, dramatic flair.
Franz Schubert’s Symphony in C, D. 944, “The Great,” got its posthumous premiere in 1839, thanks to the efforts of Felix Mendelssohn and Robert Schumann, whose review coined the notorious phrase, “heavenly length”, a tag that has stuck to this piece and to Schubert’s late music in general. Conducted without score, Mena led the orchestra wonderfully, alternately energetic and elegant. The brilliant brass and pungent winds made something seductively alluring of this winning warhorse. BSO Principal Oboe, John Ferrillo receives my special billet doux; his many contributions made this symphony truly “Great.”
I am very glad to have heard Juanjo Mena and Jean-Frédéric Neuburger. This concert was a blessing: an oasis of ravishing beauty in a time of chaos.