A Far Cry’s “Portraits,” at the Gardner Museum on Saturday and Sunday, almost plausibly connected five works inspired by images. With 29 players on the roster, including winds, brass harp, piano and percussion, the fuller Cry excited the air of Calderwood Hall to a resonance satisfyingly sensational and unabashedly romantic. Two double-basses added welcome warmth, as the Criers once again applied high-level fit and finish to an imaginatively curated afternoon. (And would the uncredited program book designer please stand and accept acclaim for an elegant product?)
In the last couple of months, BMInt has twice reviewed Bernstein’s Serenade after Plato’s Symposium. Jeffrey Gantz demurred:
Form aside, “Serenade” could hardly be expected to convey the matter of the Symposium. Plato’s lineup includes a lawyer, a physician, a comic playwright, a tragic poet, a general, and a philosopher. The dialogue encompasses questions like whether love promotes virtue, whether love between a man and a young boy is mutually beneficial, whether love is a god or a spirit. None of this registers in the music.
This writer opined:
Leonard Bernstein said he was thinking of Platonic ideals when he penned his diverting “Serenade after Plato’s Symposium,” but the crater-of-wine aspects of symposia seemed to inspire him most vividly. Yes, though we could imagine the ancient dialogues now occurring between orchestra and soloist and among the sections, the duet between violin soloist In Mo Yang and cellist Jonah Ellsworth stood out as perhaps the most Socratic.
Sunday (and Saturday) violinist Tai Murray joined the ensemble in just the slow movement, based on Agathon’s paean to love. The muted opening floated long and liquid, like a first krater of quiet fellowship, which Murray embodied in steady and invested tones that caught fire only in the concluding cadenza. As annotator Paul Griffiths refers to depictions of “rising passion,” we can’t help but append the statesman Eubulus’s brief fourth-century BCE poem from a fragment of his play on Dionysus (Thomas Cahill’s translation):
Who but Dionysus pours the flowing wine and mixes water in the streaming bowls tonight?
One bowl for ruddy health, then one for getting off,
the third brings sleep—and wise men leave before they’re tight.
For after that the bowls no more belong to us:
the fourth’s for hubris and the fifth for lots of noise,
the sixth for mindless fucking, followed by black eyes,
the eighth brings the police, the ninth’s for throwing up,
the tenth for trashing everything before we stop.
Lenny’s other movements would even better have reflected the fourth through tenth bowls.
There is but one urtext for Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, the piano original, which allows us to get the measure of pianists’ ambition to achieve massive power and elaborate colorations. To the many dozens of arrangement and transcriptions we can now add one for string orchestra, by Jacques Cohen. His 2009 version has attracted the interest of many ensembles including Gidon’s Kremerata Baltica. According to Cohen, it “…has several advantages: it can sustain the harmonies better than the piano, but at the same time, while it cannot compete with the might and spectrum of a full orchestra, its more consistent tone brings it closer to the original piano version, so that the chords are always clear. Moreover, the quintessential Russianness of the music is more immediately apparent.”
The Criers summoned enormous reserves of power, color and imagination. Never before had I heard the Promenades so variously handled, almost with a tourguide’s foreshadowing of the next galleries. And each picture received vivid treatment with coloristic effects that put a fresh layer of gilding on the old frames. In the Old Castle, violinist Robyn Bollinger and cellist Rafael Popper-Keizer alternated suitably frightening solos. I was particularly glad to meet the updated pair of old Jews. Goldenberg impersonated the Golem rather than Beckmesser. Schmuyel managed to whine without effecting gross caricature. The pecking order of the Chicks sounded inspired, and the Oxcart pushed a surprisingly Leiermann-like profundity. After Promenade 5 led us past the museum gift shop, we raced through Limoges at record pace, before Catacombs registered as a terrifying, yet deeply moving, pit stop, almost like the Beethoven Cavatina. Con Mortis spooked us with frenetic energy before relaxing into eternal rest. A dramatic pause ensued before Baba-Yaga provided a microcosm of the entire work: shifting moods, percussive slaps, scary pizzi, eerie harmonics, and sumptuous tutti—everything our great resident string orchestra can deliver. The Great Gate of Kiev opened wide for enthusiastic gratitude.
Jessica Meyer’s introduction lasted longer than her world premiere of Grasping for Light for 18 Solo Strings, a Gardner commission. But it was uncanny how she found an inspirational story for her engaging piece in an almost abstract Whistler seascape, which for her, told of the death of Mrs. Gardner’s only child, her ensuing depression, her doctor’s redemptive solution in an ocean passage, and her ensuing relief in becoming a picture connoisseur. The way Meyer scored for the 18 players she had come to know made for some gorgeous individual shimmers. We would like to have heard it again straightaway.
Respighi found his storyline for Trittico Botticelliano (1927) from three Botticelli paintings in the Uffizi Gallery as part of his energetic approach to tie fascist Italy to the grandeur of Rome and the glories of the Renaissance. In that he succeeded. Respighi knew how to make his forebears matter. The much-augmented orchestra produced the most luxurious sound I have ever encountered in Calderwood Hall. One-on-a-part flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, harp, and piano got to paint by numbers on the three lavish canvases without waiting for the oils to dry. The 20-minute second movement, suggested by the Adoration of the Magi, opened with a mournful bassoon-oboe duet setting up the famous hymn tune Veni, veni Emmanuel, which Respighi elaborated into episodes breezing beyond time and place. (Remind me to book that adorable magi for my next Christmas pageant.) Movement III depicts the birth of Venus in something of a concertino for winds and strings. Its methodical slow march in emphatic octaves and unisons could hardly be resisted by any populace.
William Grant Still’s Mother and Child, in this string orchestra arrangement, showed practically none of the orchestration acumen the other composers mustered. Even though Still provides countermelodies and shifting harmonies, his portrait came across as a clotted salon ballade, pleasant enough, but a whimpering choice to close this otherwise brilliant concert.
Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer