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Reminiscences, Loud and Sotto Voce


Among high-profile composers working today, I know of none who stages so fruitful and sophisticated a dialogue between past and present as Jörg Widmann. Perhaps because of his extensive parallel career as a performer — he is a superb clarinetist — Widmann writes music that makes unambiguous reference to earlier traditions, yet never descends into mannerism or kitsch. And despite the fact that Widmann’s negotiations with the past take different forms — imitation, satire, half-submerged reference — and that his musical syntax varies wildly from piece to piece, his voice remains unmistakably his own.

His new Partita: Five Reminiscences for Orchestra exemplifies his approach. A joint commission by the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, it had its American debut on Thursday at the center of a BSO program that also included music by Mozart and Richard Strauss. Andris Nelsons, the artistic leader of both orchestras, conducted.

One historical connection is right there in the title: Widman named Partita for the Baroque instrumental dance suite used most memorably by Bach. Leipzig, too, plays a role: It was a crucial site in the careers of both Bach and Mendelssohn. The composer told WBUR’s Keith Powers [HERE] “the whole concept” of the work was “to link the music of those two.”

That the piece would be no mere pastiche became clear at the beginning, as a winding bass clarinet solo grew into a lengthy, darkly tinted passage of ambiguous harmonic drift. The texture grew denser and more urgent until the music finally burst into what the movement title claims is a gigue. But it was a gigue in name only: no sooner did its telltale rhythm get started than the music seemed to trip itself up and lose its way, as dissonances and cross-rhythms crept in to steal its momentum. Unable to get started, the music seemed to expire.

This is the central dynamic of Partita: The traditions that Widmann mines are never present in a straightforward way; other forces emerge that will shadow the things that sounds comforting and familiar, or in some cases drive them off the rails altogether. At one point during the divertimento central movement, the music settles into a gallop that could have come out of one of Mendelssohn’s symphonies (This section also contains a hidden quote from Bach’s Cantata No. 168, “Tue Rechnung! Donnerwort.” ‘Settle account! Word of thunder’ ). Eventually, though, it devolves into a maelstrom of clashing melodies and outbursts. The rhythm goes from energetic to spastic, and just as it veers toward hysteria, the orchestra cuts off mid-scream.

By the fifth and final “reminiscence,” many of the music’s 18th– and 19th-century trappings have fallen away. Only the form of a chaconne remains—a repeated bass line with variations. The texture grows increasingly frantic, the orchestration more dazzling. When the climax comes, it explodes in major-key sound, complete with bells ringing. It’s as if you’d awoken from a long coma and stumbled into a cathedral on Easter Morning. Almost immediately, though, the music shrinks back into something more ambivalent, before ending.

Perhaps Widmann is telling us that the traditions to which we bind ourselves are neither as stable nor as reassuring as we like to think. Perhaps he’s simply doing something novel with older materials. Whatever his intent, the power and originality of this piece is undeniable. Overall, the BSO gave a strong account with a few tentative moments, especially in the brass.

Andris Nelsons leads Yo-Yo Ma and Steven Ansell (Robert Torres photo)

The evening began with a pleasant if unilluminating reading of Mozart’s Symphony No. 23. After intermission came Strauss’s Don Quixote, with Yo-Yo Ma as soloist. The same protagonists played it at Tanglewood in 2015, and I remember noting at the time that in many places their performance, intentionally or not, seemed to invert the familiar approach one usually hears: Ma contented himself to be less a soloist than just one voice among many, while the orchestra basked in the spotlight.

Thursday’s take sounded similar—just more so. Nelsons filled his direction with bold gestures and dramatic (sometimes overdramatic) pauses. The colors sounded especially vivid, often because the orchestra played too loudly.

Ma, by contrast, seemed to want to embed his instrument’s voice ever more deeply in the orchestral fabric, never looking happier than when he was supporting someone else’s solo turn. At one point during the third variation he appeared delighted to be refereeing a dialogue between principal violist Steven Ansell (as Sancho Panza) and associate concertmaster Tamara Smirnova.

Of course, he’s still Yo-Yo Ma, which means he can absorb the attention of an entire hall with a single note; refreshingly, it often wasn’t a note you’d ever really noticed before. When he had his big moments, especially playing the errant knight’s death at the end, he did not disappoint. But there was something very telling about a soloist disposed to play his part sotto voce, as if it were the orchestra who should be in the spotlight.

Perhaps in keeping with that theme, the BSO at these concerts is recognizing three members who will soon retire: horn player Jonathan Menkis (34 years), violinist Nancy Bracken (39 years), and bassist James Orleans (35 years). Nelsons and Ma took seats on stage to join in the applause for the three, who received lengthy, well-deserved ovations from both their colleagues and the audience.  

David Weininger writes the Classical Notes column for the Boston Globe, where he also contributes features and reviews. He’s also written for Gramophone, BBC Music Magazine, the Boston Phoenix, and the website of Boston NPR station WBUR.

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