in: Reviews

February 9, 2019

Risky But Enlightening Program at BSO

by

Lisa Batiashvili (Winslow Townson photo)

In three works spanning eight decades of the 20th century, Andris Nelsons excited Central European hyper-impressionism, American neoclassicism, and American postwar expressionism to Symphony Hall Friday afternoon.

Lumina by Olly Wilson, a California composer who died last year provided a ten-minute splash of sound and orchestral color. From the beginning the work displayed sharp, staccato attacks of closely-clustered tones, short-spaced in time against a diffusely-sustained harmonic background mostly in wide-spaced divided strings; one had the impression of lightning flashes against a clouded sky, sometimes with a sharp brass chord or a shriek of a piccolo. The composer specified a large percussion section for three players, but he used the forces relatively sparingly to underline details, never en masse.  Wilson gave the latter half of Lumina more transparent texture, with melodic lines clearly shaped by tonality, including a mournful oboe solo; a surprising crescendo in trills for all the strings divisi culminated in an fff cutoff, shortly before the work ended pp. This short work recalled the Sinfonia that Wilson composed for the Boston Symphony in 1981, a work of vigor, excitement, and expressive depth; Lumina evinced more reserve in its declamation but proved no less interesting. Olly Wilson visited Tufts University when I was teaching there, and I remember the lively impression he made on our students; I also remember producing William Brown’s performance of Wilson’s “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” when Videmus recorded it for New World Records.

Karol Szymanowski’s seemingly rambling structures, complex tonality and textures, and especially its mysticism always challenges performers and listeners, and yet, one can be attracted to its sheer sound even when it sounds too complicated for what it tries to do. The Violin Concerto No. 1, op. 35, composed in 1916, offers a satisfying example in its single, 20-minute movement. If a controlling melody remained hard to discern, the composer nevertheless larded the concerto with plenty of melodic gestures. The harmonic idiom went from whole-tone to chorale-like triadic sonorities to chromatic textures like Scriabin’s; the rich orchestral color was everywhere, with wide spacing, rapid-figuration textures like an atonal Petrushka, a bird-call atmosphere, whole-tone glissandi for two harps right out of La mer, high-register divided cellos, and a rhapsodic, improvisatory style for orchestra and soloist alike. Lisa Batiashvili, the soloist, fearlessly projected the concerto’s expressive registers high and low with beautiful tone, though the orchestra sometimes covered her rapid passage work in the lower register. A section in fast triplets seemed too abrupt, and a slow waltz left one wanting more, but like so much of the concerto, event proceeded to event without recall, which ultimately didn’t matter. A D minor-cadenza for the violin alone, the work of Paul Kochánski, the dedicatee, seemed out of place in space and time.

The BSO and Koussevitzky commissioned Aaron Copland’s Third Symphony in 1946. I have on my desk in front of me the octavo study score of this very symphony, published by Boosey & Hawkes, priced $3.50 ($48.14 today), and inscribed, “For Mark DeVoto / Aaron Copland / Tanglewood 1959.” Copland was then the Director of the Berkshire Music Center summer program; I was a mere college student, but I will never forget the totally confident, relaxed, friendly personality of that great American composer whom everyone loved and still loves. I grew up with the magnificent recording of the Third Symphony played by the Minneapolis Symphony conducted by Antal Dorati, and I think it is still unsurpassed. Yesterday I heard the work live for the first time. It’s a big symphony, more than 40 minutes, and it was still thrilling to the core — notwithstanding the caveats that will follow, for the BSO had not played it in Symphony Hall since 1991 and not everybody in the orchestra, nor in the audience for that matter, knew the work well. It represents Copland at his most characteristic — with clear diatonic harmony, triads with extra notes, and a strongly rhythmic language, just as one hears in Billy the Kid, Lincoln Portrait and Rodeo —studiously organized, expansive, symphonically proportioned. (Copland used the percussion, especially drums, way too much just for accentuating other instruments, as do many other contemporary composers.)

The four movements share the central key of E major, and much of the texture is located in high registers. The principal theme that begins in the strings on the first page returns cyclically in the finale. Most listeners will particularly remember the introduction to the finale, which follows the slow movement directly: an expanded version of the well-known “Fanfare for the Common Man,” originally written as an independent piece for the series of fanfares commissioned during World War II by Eugene Goossens and the Cincinnati Symphony (even Schoenberg wrote one for the project). Following the fanfare, the finale gets going intensively, with an energetically contrapuntal texture dominated by the strings. There was some trouble here with balance and maybe some wrong entrances. Of course rapid skips and wide registers in fast tempo demand much of the strings, and Copland’s syncopation is hard to negotiate with any kind of large ensemble. (Copland’s metric notation is sometimes held up to blame; ask any conductor who has had to direct El Salón Mexico or the Organ Symphony.) The brass always shone in this finale, too, though sometimes they blasted. After a big contrapuntal climax, an extensive final section on the fanfare theme develops gradually with return of the first-movement main theme.  It was especially interesting to hear the last pages of the score in their original version, which had been set aside and later tinkered with by Leonard Bernstein; I definitely like the original version better.

These bumps and scrapes will, no doubt, be smoothed away later in the run. Nelsons conducted throughout with scrupulous attentiveness, his beat always visible and precise. He hardly bowed at all after the performances because he wanted everyone else to have first-place credit: the violin soloist, the first-chair players, and especially the assistant principal oboe Keisuke Wakao, who projected radiant tone and expression in all three works. But Nelsons deserved no less credit —perhaps especially for his risky but enlightening programming.

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.

4 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. Mark DeVoto: “These bumps and scrapes will, no doubt, be smoothed away later in the run.”

    Perhaps a bit, but even during the 3rd performance on Saturday night, bumps and scrapes abounded, and not just from Copland’s relentlessly overlapping, often odd-rhythm syncopations. I counted a surprising number of fluffed horn and trombone attacks, as well as tentative string entrances despite Andris Nelsons’ crisp beating and lucid sense of the Third Symphony’s architecture. It’s a wonderful piece, I think, but very difficult to play, even by an ensemble of the BSO’s calibre, without enough rehearsals to get that handful of phase-shifting passages synced up.

    I’m not sure I enjoyed Olly Wilson’s ‘Lumina’ quite as much as the reviewer – its modernism seems a tad dated and obvious at times – but I’m positive I was far more moved than he by the otherworldly Szymanowski 1st concerto. I can hardly imagine a violinist better suited to this extravagantly sensuous score than Lisa Batiashvili, whose identity seemed to merge seamlessly with Szymanowski’s fabulous myth-ticism. I felt a deep commitment on Saturday night from soloist, conductor, and the players, culminating in the finest of the night’s achievements.

    Like Mr. DeVoto, I applaud everyone involved – Andris Nelsons, Tony Fogg, Batiashvili – for the heady programming – risky for sure, but plenty enlightening.

    Comment by nimitta — February 10, 2019 at 11:43 am

  2. I always learn something from a Mark DeVoto review, for which I’m grateful.

    I’m glad he had a positive experience with Copland at Tanglewood. I recall reading that, some years earlier, Alan Hovhaness had a distinctly unhappy one, in terms of waspish critiques and social shunning.

    As to Copland’s Third, I’m sorry I missed it live, but I hope to inform myself somewhat of Nelsons’s approach by tuning in tomorrow night. I don’t know the Dorati recording, but a more recent one by James Judd and the New Zealand SO seems quite fine.

    I have always thought of the Third as Copland’s second best piece, after Appalachian Spring, and possibly the second best symphony by an American, after Ives’s Fourth; but if Mark’s analysis is correct and complete, part of my love for it may rest on an aural mirage: Unless my ears have deceived me all this time, I have heard this work as not just cyclical, but essentially monothematic, with each movement based on a variant of the Fanfare. This fits with the emotional sense of the piece as a testament to how we fought and won World War II–as a people united in a “citizens’ war.” As the grateful and somewhat improbable son of someone who fought in it and was wounded at Normandy, this concept resonates with me and, I hope, with many others similarly situated.

    Comment by Vance Koven — February 10, 2019 at 1:49 pm

  3. I concur with Nimitta’s description of all three works. Heard it Thursday night and it seems as if the Copland didn’t get much better by Saturday. I’ve never seen the BSO musicians looking so unhappy. I guess they could tell what was happening.

    Comment by Leon Golub — February 10, 2019 at 3:18 pm

  4. Thanks for this insightful review. I would add one correction, however; Schoenberg did not participate in the 1942-43 Goossens fanfare project, but did participate in a similar and larger one mounted by Leopold Stokowski for the summer 1945 season of Hollywood Bowl concert, which resulted in Schoenberg’s Fanfare for a Bowl Concert: here

    book here

    Comment by Mather Pfeiffenberger — February 11, 2019 at 1:27 pm

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