in: Reviews

November 14, 2017

A Big Buss for BUSO and Tovey

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Instead of the usual BSO subscription crowd, the Boston University Symphony Orchestra drew almost all young people to Symphony Hall last night. Among the students and their friends, with a scattering of parents and faculty, attention and enthusiasm were total. This writer delighted in seeing the next generation of symphony regulars. BMInt’s lenghty intervdeiw with Tovey is HERE.

British conductor Bramwell Tovey, a frequent BSO guest conductor, who has just taken over the directorship of the orchestra that David Hoose led so well for so many years, conducted it for the first time in this hall in a suitably challenging program. I had heard Lili Boulanger’s five-minute gem, D’un matin de printemps in its flute-and-piano version just last week. The full-orchestral version, which opened these proceedings, impressed immediately: the melody line of the flute was distributed among other winds in the orchestral version, and the texture was amplified by the strings in solo groups contrasting with massed divisé as well as various subtleties of color: some col legno, some simultaneous arco and pizzicato, the quiet but always audible harp bass. The ff textures were few, but they really seemed too loud; it would be interesting to study the score and see if a more impressionistic orchestral balance could be restored in those few places. But the most striking sounds of all were in the descending line of upper-register parallel fifths were likely inspired by the similar fifths in another springtime piece: Debussy’s Rondes de printemps, the rarely-heard no. 3 in his set of orchestral Images.

Stravinsky’s Pulcinella Suite, adapting and arranging forgotten pieces by Pergolesi and others, is a chamber-orchestra work that balances a remarkably full orchestral sound in tutti with well-defined solo groups. The score has some fussy details that Stravinsky apparently wanted to try out for the first time: special flute harmonics (the fingering indicated in the score), bouncing spiccato in the pianissimo strings that is really too subtle to be heard. But the neo-Rococo orchestral sound, livened up as Stravinsky knew so well how to do, is completely winning. “A stylish orchestration was what Diaghilev wanted, and nothing more,” Stravinsky wrote in 1962, “and my music so shocked him that he went about for a long time with a look that suggested The Offended Eighteenth Century.” These young players handled this modern view of the past with outstanding confidence, especially the solo strings: Subaiou Zhang, concertmaster, and Peter Walsh, solo contrabass in the comic duo with trombone (the quite fearless Elisabeth Shafer), were outstanding. But the winds excelled too: Katrina Kwantes (oboe) and Cong Zhang (bassoon) especially. Some early bobbling in the horns at first — the high registers are dangerous so early in the evening —was more than redeemed by superb smooth solo playing (Rebecca Barron, principal). The accelerando before the Tarantella slightly fumbled, and the Tarantella itself sped way too fast; the strings had to scramble. The Tarantella is a dance, after all, not a death spiral, and the tempo ought to be similar to the one in Rossini-Respighi’s La boutique fantasque, to name another Diaghilev ballet that really got a “stylish orchestration.” The Finale sounded too thick and imbalanced; one more rehearsal would most likely have evened that up perfectly; but here’s a shout for Robert Wollenberg, trumpet, who nailed all seven of those difficult high Cs. (Does anyone else hear the close orchestral correlation between parts of this finale and Manuel de Falla’s Tricorne for a Diaghilev ballet written about the same time?

The Rite of Spring has always been a challenge for players and conductors alike, but today it surely must seem less intractable than it did in 1913 — much more a heroic workout than a nightmarish puzzler. I wrote about the challenges of the score itself nine years ago, mentioning a number of things that are never heard in the welter of rich orchestral sound; many of the difficult details are still difficult to understand, as Stravinsky no doubt realized when he revised so many of them so many times. Hearing the work in the concert hall always reveals new marvels, new infelicities, and new lacunae in the sound. This is surely one reason why Sony brought out a 100th-Anniversary Collection of 10 reference recordings: different performances conducted by Stokowski, Monteux, Ormandy, Ozawa, Boulez, and five others (including two by the composer himself) — Sony 88725461742.

Bramnwell Tovey conducts BUSO (Sam Brewer photo)

Last night’s take exhibited carefree and mighty togetherness; the players went at it with all the youthful energy and skill they could muster, which didn’t deflect them from total exactitude and focus on the task at hand. Stravinsky’s predilection for a solo group of violas: six of them just before no. 13, four at no. 50, six more at no. 91 (memorably, “molto cantabile ma non f ”), is worth noting. Signficcant balance problems of appear in this work. The horn glissandi in the four bars before the “Abduction” were quite inaudible (Stravinsky must have worried about this too: “I was never satisfied with the horn parts.”). Even though the two piccolos shrieked in the “Tribes” section and in “Glorification,” I could barely hear them, and this couldn’t have been their fault. (Maybe they should stand up, as in “Stars and Stripes Forever.” So, perhaps, should the Wagner tubas in “Sage”). The “Glorification” presents problems of its own, especially in rhythmic hocketing between two orchestral groups, but it came off very strong. This may be the most difficult place in the score to get exactly right, because of tempo changes; the “Sacrificial Dance” is easier because the pulse is constant. It was refreshing to hear the palpable difference, in the “Sacrificial Dance,” between staccato accents on a sixteenth-note chord and an eighth-note chord. Yet the brass often overpowered the strings during the final section, too. And the bass drum and tamtam, while impressive, were often too loud, while I couldn’t hear the guïro at all (nor have I ever heard it in a live performance). (The tamtam in the “Glorification,” struck with a triangle beater, needs to be elevated on a stand; then it sounds absolutely terrifying.)

Bramwell Tovey exerted full command over this explosive morass of sound. His beat was always direct and clear in The Rite of Spring, not always so in the other two pieces — which didn’t hurt them any. He mostly used his left hand for shaping the sound, but even in the Rite he sometimes held his baton still and beat time with his left in softer textures. The players had no difficulty in responding to his direction. When his baton flicked from the wrist, the beat remained distinct; at other times it flailed with his arms, and this was at places where one could perceive that the music calls for it. His teacup finger still needs to be suppressed. But there’s no doubt at all that he was both controlling and enjoying a performance of great vitality. The audience felt similarly; they were on their feet with cheers. And the message was clear: how important it is for young people to hear great music like this, well and confidently played. The kids seem lucky in the administration’s choice in Bramwell Tovey.

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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