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BSO Opens: Panache, Joyful Ode, Premiere

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Lucas and Arthur Jussen (file photo)

Opening Night for the Boston Symphony’s 2019-20 season seemed more festive than usual (we are not referring to the free refreshments offered hitherto, but not this year), with Andris Nelsons leading a congeries of crowd-pleasing repertoire, a premiere, and a more-lavish-than-usual assortment of soloists (sensus largo) and choral participation.

First came Poulenc’s Concerto in D Minor for Two Pianos and Orchestra (1932), one two works of his in the concert. Commissioned by the colorful Winnaretta Singer, Princesse de Polignac, it is one of the landmarks of Poulenc’s early, boulevardier style, crisp with Stravinskyan neoclassicism rounded with wistful lyricism, melodic fecundity and music-hall monkeyshines. Lucas and Arthur Jussen, two young Dutch brothers  in very snappy military-style tunics, gave magnificent performances in their BSO debut as duo pianists (Arthur would later return to the stage as soloist), looking as if Tintin had been recast as the Thompson twins (they are not twins; Lucas is 3½ years older). We have not heard their 2017 recording of the Poulenc concerto, but one French radio show proclaimed it the best-ever recording of the piece. If that performance was like the one they offered Thursday, we can understand the effusion. They came out of the gate bold and fast, and carried the first movement with unabashed joy, with a Chopinesque delicacy in its middle section and a marvelously hushed gamelan-like conclusion. The slow movement, the avatar of 20th-century French style, perfumed the hall with its bittersweet major sevenths and gentle Mozartean turns of phrase, while the finale burst out with more nose-thumbing noisemaking, lyrical counterpoises, and yet another cushioned gamelan conclusion. The large orchestral complement (Alexander Velanzon taking the now-officially-vacant concertmaster seat) provided splendid color and incisive rhythmic support. A treat for the ears (also, per the spousal unit, for the eyes).

Taken by itself, Beethoven’s Fantasia in C Minor, op. 80, for piano, soloists, chorus and orchestra (the Choral Fantasy), is one of the enduring oddities of the standard concert repertoire. Why, one asks, would anyone pack such forces into a not-very-long single movement work? The explanation, courtesy of the essay by our BMInt colleague and former BSO program annotator Steven Ledbetter, is quite simple. Beethoven concocted what is basically a set of variations on a theme from an earlier-composed song of his (with a new set of pretty much doggerel verses by Christian Kuffner) as the capstone for the monster concert of December 22, 1808, at which he premiered both the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, the Fourth Piano Concerto, the song cycle Ah, Perfido! and movements from the Mass in C. He thus had all the forces available for the evening and could bring them all together for a rousing (maybe literally—it was a four-hour concert) send-off. The musical significance of the Fantasy has been the remarkable resemblance, not only in the notes but also in how Beethoven set and varied them, between the theme of op. 80 and the Ode to Joy from the Ninth Symphony. Warm-up or coincidence? Lady or tiger? You choose.

Nelsons and his assembled troops (Arthur Jussen, piano; Alexandra Smither and Pauline Swierczek, sopranos; Katherine Maysek, mezzo; Chance Jonas-O’Toole and Eric Finbarr Carey, tenors; William Socolof, bass-baritone; and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus under James Burton) provided just the sort of full-out, hard-charging, sonorous reading that would have been perfect for Beethoven’s original purposes (reports are that the actual event was an under-rehearsed fiasco). Jussen began his cadenza-like introduction at a fast pace, but with elegant dynamic nuance; the same could be said for the rest of his virtuosic delivery. The horn section announced its heads-up summons to the main theme perfectly, the wind variations came across nimble and well-shaped. The sizeable Tanglewood Festival Chorus produced sturdy resonance, while by contrast, the six vocal soloists seemed to adopt a light, fluttery sonority—not exactly wrong, especially considering the text, but somewhat at odds with the Nelsons’s approach.

Nicole Cabell, soprano (Winslow Townson photo)

Undoubtedly, the concert’s most significant event came after intermission in the premiere of Eric Nathan’s Concerto for Orchestra. Nelsons has apparently encouraged the orchestra to invest heavily in this 35-year-old composer, who now teaches at Brown, having commissioned Why Old Places Matter in 2015 for the BSO Chamber Players, and The Space of a door for the orchestra in 2016 (its recording of the latter will be released shortly). As a participant in numerous commissioning decisions myself, I can tell you that it’s always dicey, no matter what one thinks of a composer’s prior output; past performance being not guarantee…etcetera. For a major institution like the BSO, the risks rise even higher: do you go for something the audience is likely to enjoy straight away (which would most of the time bend the decision towards conservatism), go for the cutting edge, or try to split the difference? It might be an interesting exercise (is anybody from WHRB reading this?) to play all the BSO commissions ever recorded, by it or anyone else, to evaluate the orchestra’s long-term batting average in this realm.

Nathan’s Concerto is, unlike most of, if not all, its predecessors with that title, a single-movement work. This is important to know in light of the structural sense that seems to inform most of his single-movement works (we listened to a few examples that can be found on YouTube), which is that of an evolving musical argument that has a sort of narrative structure but that doesn’t rely on “received” musical forms. It opens with an amusing conceit, the sound of street noise (lots of loud dissonance microtonally inflected to simulate traffic sounds) suddenly cut off by the hush of the concert hall (we only know this because Robert Kirzinger’s essay, based on his association with the composer, gives a blow-by-blow account of the many incidents in the music—read it HERE as there are just too many to catalogue if you’re trying to listen at the same time). It’s true that Charles Ives got there first, but Charles Ives got just about everywhere first. Another seeming standard feature of Nathan’s writing is that he creates phrases that are analogous to cadences by virtue of opening up in complexity only to conclude with a resting point on an actual or near unison; the final one of the piece was held so long that it cried out for a major triad, but that’s never going to happen—Nathan is firmly in the “neo-atonal” camp. We can report that, true to its name, the Concerto created substantial passages for different choirs of the orchestra (there are a few for violins in unison that evoked for us the sound of Shostakovich, which is ironic in that one passage for sliding trombones seemed intended to invoke the sneer leveled at Shostakovich by Bartók in his own Concerto for Orchestra). Bartók’s Concerto is also brought to mind in a passage near the end of Nathan’s with feverishly fingering strings with a brass wind-up that stops just short of quoting the main theme of Bartók’s finale. There are numerous lovely passages in Nathan’s piece, which a first hearing can’t properly equip us to evaluate, though on the whole we’re inclined to put it in the “split-the-difference” category, staying power TBD.

Soprano soloist Nicole Cabell took to the stage (the chorus having remained there seated during the Nathan) for Poulenc’s Gloria, a well-known (we’ll avoid the equine metaphor) and well-beloved example of the composer’s late (1959) “sober-sided” style. Having said that, just as Rossini couldn’t resist opera buffa flourishes in his late religious works, Poulenc utterly failed to omit insouciant music-hall touches like deliberately “wrong” prosody and tunes and rhythms that were more camp than campanile. Divided into six short and short-ish movements, it opens with a strutting, stentorian flourish that brass and chorus intoned masterfully. The sectional divisions, and how Poulenc varies their setting in essentially symphonic ways, bespeaks, despite his devotion to Mozart, a lesson well learned from Haydn. The second movement, a perennial favorite with its “itchee-gitchee-goomie” setting of “benedicimus te,” was rousing and effusive. In the first Domine Deus, Cabell projected a fine directness and honesty. The Domine fili unigenite has a lighter orchestral texture, but we could have had it even lighter. The real treat of the performance was Cabell’s exquisite, spine-tingling pianissimo ascents in the second Domine Deus. She was, in a word, perfect. The finale, Qui sedes ad dextram patris, brings a return to the opening motto, with a development of a chaste form of Poulenc sweetness. A lovely way to end.

Vance R. Koven studied music at Queens College and New England Conservatory, and law at Harvard. A composer and practicing attorney, he was for many years the chairman of Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble.

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  1. Nelsons would have made more sense by moving the Choral Fantasy to the final work on the program, with the poulenc Gloria ending the first half. Nelsons, i now see, often arranges programs in strange ways.

    Comment by Don Drewecki — September 22, 2019 at 1:40 pm

  2. De gustibus, Don. The program made wonderful musical sense to me – I found the Friday performance a joy from start to finish, with the coruscating brilliance of Poulenc’s 2-piano concerto giving way to the gravitas and uplift of an astonishing Choral Fantasy…bravo, Jussens Lucas and Arthur! Eric Nathan’s Concerto For Orchestra began the 2nd half with its riveting narrative, plunging from the hectic, fragmented outer world into the depths of the heart, present amidst sorrow, quivering fear, peace, and resurgent energy going forth. Although a few measures didn’t feel completely as compelling or fully realized as the rest, I found the piece quite remarkable and worthy of more hearings. As for Poulenc’s Gloria, I agree with Vance Koven and his incisive review: what a lovely way to end, Nicole Cabell in magical voice, masterfully accompanied by Andris Nelsons.

    By the way, in addition to the organic musical balance I felt on Friday, I’d say the program also made eminent logistical sense, as anyone who’s ever moved pianos on and off stage amidst a large orchestra and audience might tell you.

    Comment by nimitta — September 23, 2019 at 11:30 am

  3. In the BSO program book, Poulenc defends the lightness and wittiness of his “Laudamus te” against the detractors of his “non-religious tone” in that section by citing how the angels depicted by Benozzo Gozzoli”stick out their tongues.” I’ve consulted not only my memory but the several Gozzoli books I own, and I believe Poulenc is wrong. The angels whose tongues are most vividly visible are those in the great “Journey of the Magi” frescoes in the Medici-Riccardi palace in Florence. The singing angels are not “sticking out” their tongues; they are pressing their tongues against the insides of their lower teeth (a renaissance singing-habit, perhaps?), or slightly raising their tongues within the insides of their mouths, not extending their tongues beyond their lips. Gozzoli wasn’t trying to be wittily irreverent; he was trying to make us hear those angelic sonoroties.

    Comment by Alan Levitan — September 23, 2019 at 11:36 pm

  4. But why did the chorus have to be on stage for the orchestral pieces? It wouldn’t have taken much more than the usual time to reset the stage for them to enter when they were about to perform.

    Was someone afraid that they’d trash the green room or start yodeling?

    Comment by Joe Whipple — September 28, 2019 at 6:14 pm

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