This week’s BSO program, led by Andris Nelsons, was snowed out on Thursday, but played in its glorious entirety on Saturday evening, Friday’s show having been a Casual Friday from which Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin was omitted. For this listener, Saturday night live stands as one of the highlights of my four decades of listening to this orchestra.
Strong on French music since Henri Rabaud replaced Karl Muck in 1918, the BSO gave the American premiere of Ravel’s ingenious orchestration of his Le Tombeau de Couperin in 1920. Ravel began to write what he originally called a Suite française for piano in July 1914. World War I interrupted his work (he drove an ambulance), and he did not return to this project, until June 1917. He completed the work that November. On April 11, 1919, pianist Marguerite Long premiered it in Paris with an immense success. The audience receved an encore of the entire six-movement suite. Before the war, Ravel’s own deft orchestrations of his piano pieces Mother Goose and the Valses nobles et sentimentales succeeded with wild popularity; consequently, he tried to metamorphose Le Tombeau into an orchestral showpiece, and succeeded despite losing two movements along the way. Ravel intended it to pay homage to French 18th-century music in general, but to make the title more vivid he invoked the name of François Couperin (1668-1733), one of the great masters of the French Baroque whose suites for harpsichord solo served Ravel as a model for his own versions of French dance genres.
Ravel dedicated each Tombeau (tombstone) movement to a friend who had fallen at the front, though, curiously enough, these dedications are not carried over to the orchestral version, which omits two of the six originals, the Fugue and the Toccata.
The Menuet and Rigaudon sped by as fast as I’ve ever heard them, but the orchestral playing remained crystalline. More gloire arrived from John Ferrillo’s gorgeous oboe phrases in the Prélude and Menuet. A different kind of excitement came as one of Jessica Zhou’s harp strings broke. Luckily, a second harp was already tuned and on stage, so she glided over and just kept playing. Ravel wrote extraordinarily well for harp, and Zhou’s playing throughout the evening deployed a wide range of dynamics and an always-beautiful sound.
The eminent British composer George Benjamin’s (b. 1960) entrancing “Dream of the Song” was a co-commission by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam, BBC Symphony, and the Netherlands Chamber Choir and Tanglewood Music Center in honor of its 75th Anniversary. Countertenor Bejun Mehta and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and Netherlands Chamber Choir under the composer’s direction gave the world premiere in 2015, and it was performed last summer with conductor Steven Asbury, countertenor Daniel Moody, the TMC Orchestra and the Boston’s own Lorelei Ensemble to ecstatic reviews to celebrate the 75th Anniversary of the Tanglewood Music Center.
George Benjamin, whose important early teacher was Messiaen, has always been interested in voice, and his most recent opera, Written on Skin, has garnered critical attention since its 2012 premiere as one of the best operas in a generation. The role of boy/angel in Written for Skin, like Dream of the Song, was written for this performance’s astonishing countertenor, Bejun Mehta. (While we live in an age of an abundance of splendid countertenors, I can recall only a few decades back they were a rarity). With irrepressible flair and drama, Mehta worked his melismatic magic (perfect enunciation, perfect pitches) though this 15-minute piece, whose 11th – century Hebrew poems by Solomon Ibn Gabirol (ca. 1012-ca. 1050 or 1070) and Samuel HaNagid (993-after 1056) were heard in translations by Peter Cole. Benjamin interspersed fragments of poems by the great Spanish poet Federico García Lorca (1898-1936) inspired by and based on 8th– and 9th-century Arabic verse.
Robert Kirzinger’s excellent program notes explain:
Benjamin clearly selected the poems to ring, as it were, on consonant (or poignantly dissonant) frequencies. So, as in Written on Skin, there is this superimposition of times, of cultures, of legend versus history, that illuminates the continuity and persistence of human concerns.
Held up against the Hebrew poems, the Spanish-language texts are analogous to the role of the women’s chorus in creating an atmosphere for the perhaps more pointed and individual voice of the countertenor and his words, often blossoming like a corona around a light. Benjamin related in an interview prior to the work’s British premiere that this sonic relationship was one that triggered the piece as a whole, saying “One of the inspirations was the idea of writing a work for countertenor and female chorus in which the sound of eight solo singers would surround and encase the sound of the countertenor. Quite similar registers but so different in timbre and sound and in expression as well. [read more in BMInt’s article here]
Mehta made a stunning impression, utterly captivating the audience from (the moment he uttered) his first word. The resplendently dressed Lorelei Ensemble, an extraordinary all-women vocal octet composed of some of Boston’s best singers, led by Beth Willer, provided more musical magic, singing fragments of Lorca texts, in Spanish, weaving ornate background webs of shimmering beauty and mystery. When the work is repeated (and it should be), the women should be on risers so we could see and hear them better (I sat in the 8th row of the orchestra).
Since 1883 the BSO has done Hector Berlioz’s earliest major orchestral work, Symphonie Fantastique, hundreds of times with dozens of conductors at the Boston Music Hall, Symphony Hall, Tanglewood, and on tour. They recorded it four times. On this occasion, Nelsons led a thrillingly nuanced, colorful reading, with every principal player in the winds, percussion, and brass contributing outstanding solos. English hornist Robert Sheena, as always, produced gorgeous tones. The strings and harps played exquisitely. For this incomparable evening, the audience applauded until their hands hurt. Bravo to the BSO and extraordinary guest artists, Bejun Mehta and the alluring Loreleis.