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BPO Opens 40th Season


Jonah Park Ellsworth (file photo)

Beginning the 40th season of the Boston Philharmonic, which coincides with Benjamin Zander’s 80th birthday (next March), the veteran conductor gave the brisk downbeat for the skyrockets of Glinka’s overture to Ruslan and Lyudmila even before the audience stopped clapping at his entrance on stage, indeed even before he got both feet on the podium. It was that kind of presto display. The orchestra had no difficulty keeping up with the whirlwind tempo (really no faster than Mozart’s Figaro overture, but much noisier). Stravinsky, who spoke of Glinka as a “Russian Rossini” and often included this overture on his own concert programs, wrote: “His music is minor, of course, but he is not; all of music in Russia stems from him.” The epithet may be accurate, but it takes some doing to identify the Russianness: the “Boris bells” harmonies appear midway through, in the mysterious soft repeated chords depicting the sudden magical abduction of Lyudmila by the sorcerer Chernomor. (See my article, “Boris’s Bells, by way of Schubert and Others” example 20 HERE.)                                                                                                                       

Following Glinka’s brilliant orchestral blitz, which lasts only six minutes or so, Zander talked to the audience about the music, about sonata form and tragedy, in his relaxed but amiably informative way, better at this kind of communication than Leonard Bernstein. He spoke about the American background of the work that would follow, Dvořák’s Cello Concerto, and pointed to the thematic resemblances between the concerto and the “New World” Symphony that he had completed only a year earlier.

Jonah Ellsworth, the soloist in the concerto, brought total concentration to an intense and warmly inflected performance. Who can forget his fine appearance in February of last year in Beethoven’s Triple Concerto with the Boston Phil in Sanders? This concerto is a bigger piece, and certainly a better one, indeed the most beloved of all concerti for the cello. The orchestra’s role is especially balanced — symphonic as well as supportive. The notes mentioned Dvořák’s personal suffering and grief as well as the Heimweh that shadowed the compositional process, and these were well evoked not only in the passion of Ellsworth’s engagement but also in the gradual dénouement of mixed B minor and B major, which became triumphant in the Coda of the finale — and no wonder the audience cheered.

The Brahms’s Symphony No. 1 in C Minor, op. 68 concluded the program. We all know from Beethoven’s examples, and Brahms knew especially, that C minor is a challenge to Fate. The first movement particularly testifies to the expectation and energy, not to mention anxiety, that labored in Brahms’s compositional psyche as he produced his first effort in the symphony genre at the age of 43. (His two Serenades had been for practice, but the preparation was a strong one.) The beginning, with its diverging melodic layers —violins and cellos upward, woodwinds downward, over a C tonic drumbeat of doom —cry out in an anguish which requires over 500 bars for a resolution that appears only gradually as the movement develops with increasing confidence, ending at last in a quiet C major. This movement is really the most remarkable single movement in all four of Brahms’s symphonies, both ponderous and poignant, because of its relentless empyrean striving. Zander’s discussion singled out the role of the contrabassoon, which alone in the score generates the 16-foot C in the opening bass. The double basses, in the score, are indicated for 4-foot C (second space in the bass clef); but Zander had them play an octave lower (8-foot C), thus sounding an octave lower still. Brahms’s own double basses, which could only reach down to E, could not produce this note; but the six basses of the Boston Phil all had the E-string extension yielding the open-string low C — a wonderful sound, blending with contrabassoon and supporting the timpani with fine pesante resonance. (Mahler remembered this when he wrote the beginning of “Der Abschied” in Das Lied von der Erde.)

Brahms in 1853

The descending chromatic harmony of the opening measures forms a sighing motive that recurs repeatedly, carries over into the Lied of the second movement (mm. 116-118), and becomes transformed at the beginning of the finale, but disappears entirely in the third movement,

Zander mentioned that the third movement, which though not so titled is really an Intermezzo, began with two five-bar melodic phrases; he could have pointed out that the second of these is the melodic inversion of the first — a means of formal development. (Brahms did this trick even more elegantly in the fourth movement, “How lovely is thy dwelling place,” in the German Requiem.)

A characteristic of Brahms’s style, especially prominent in the orchestral works, is his predilection for hemiolas, displaced accents, and variable phrase lengths — five bars in the phrase are never unusual, and rf and sf could always be distinguished.  The entire ensemble’s meticulous attention to the dynamic details of the score in this work impressed mightily. A mezzo-piano really sounded like mezzo-piano, with mezzo-forte clearly contrasted; only rarely did a f manage to sound excessive, too ff.  Especially in the slow movement the < > swells were very clear and precise. All of this precision added to what I would call a well-nigh perfect performance of a great work. Zander’s control was complete and authoritative, and the players, especially the principal woodwinds and horn, happily gave their best.

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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