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Sir Simon Rattle Conducts Against Cancer

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Simon Rattle conducted BPO in Boston (Robert Torres photo)

Fortunate music lovers filled Jordan Hall Sunday for a once-in-a decade opportunity to hear Sir Simon Rattle conduct a select, ad-hoc orchestra in Boston. Flutist and Mistral Music Director Julie Scolnik, aided by many volunteers and donors, arranged the concert to raise money for Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program, Boston Breast Cancer Equity Coalition, and Greater Lawrence Family Health Center. The Mistral Music Website shows how many people and institutions were involved in making this major event possible, in addition to the players’ and Rattle’s donation of their services.

These extensive contributions were documented in the program but were amplified and personalized in a talk at the beginning of the program by Meghna Chakrabarti, host and editor of On Point, from NPR and WBUR. Following the Mozart overture, Julie Scolnik talked in detail about many aspects of her cancer, its treatment, how she dealt with all aspects of the experience, and how it led her to organizing this event and a similar one in Boston in 2010.  It was impressive and made clear how that experience could lead someone with her vision and dedication to undertake the huge effort necessary to produce an event like this concert.    

I have played in a number of great concert halls in Europe and Japan while on tour with the New Orleans Philharmonic and the Minnesota Orchestra, and have heard other top-notch orchestras in those halls and in halls here in the US. But I have never seen Rattle conduct before, so I was quite eager to hear him lead three great works from the core of the symphonic repertoire.

Most of the players had not worked together before (aside from some earlier preparatory sessions without him) until Rattle stepped up to lead them in a single, three-hour rehearsal in a large NEC practice space. No time remained even for a quick balance check in the Jordan Hall, so we forgive them for certain minor imperfections.

Several principals told me they relished the chance to work with Rattle in addition to making their contributions to a fine cause. His advanced but relaxed baton technique and body language consistently expressed musical ideas which felt natural, organic to the music—not ones which required constant attention. His tempi always felt right, and his tempo modifications seemed very natural. This is no doubt a major part of the reason he is appreciated so much by players and listeners alike.

Mozart’s Overture to The Marriage of Figaro contains no themes from the opera but its swift pace does anticipate the character of much of the action. I performed Figaro many times during 36 summers at the Santa Fe Opera and was eager to hear both bassoons play the virtuoso parts and the principal bassoon play the solos. These bassoons synced perfectly with the celli in the tuttis and Daniel Matsukawa, principal bassoon of the Philadelphia Orchestra gave luster to his solos. Rattle certainly took a swift pace, but the phrase lengths, accents, and style of articulation he elicited found a sweet spot between emotive and virtuosic―neither neither too deliberate nor too breathless. It requires constant focus to keep the ensemble clean, but this group made it sound easy.

The slow movement only of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony followed the Mozart and provided a major contrast in pace and feel, but that was not the primary reason it appeared on the program. Scolnik had listened to it frequently while undergoing treatment for her cancer, as it sustained her during the successful regimen. This Adagio molto e cantabile lasts about 15 minutes but can seem longer without successful integration of pace, flow, balance, and style, and doing both of those things at the same time can create tension. Rattle and the players brought it off easily. I never felt or heard effort in tone production, or any awkwardness in the transitions between the variations which form the architecture of the movement. The music just flowed forward, and the string tone was gorgeous. When the wind band came in, the change in balance and sound from the strings was totally unobtrusive.  

Aficionados of the oboe enjoyed two fine principals. John Ferillo, principal oboe of the BSO, took the solo role in Brahms’s Symphony No. 1, with numerous opportunities to display his mastery of the instrument, from tone color to phrasing to subtle expressive rhythmic alterations, including the lovely duet in the slow movement with Juliette Kang, first associate concertmaster of the Philadelphia Orchestra and former assistant concertmaster of the BSO. But he played second oboe during the Mozart and Beethoven to Robert Sheena, the unusually lyrical English horn player of the BSO,. He sounded beautiful and right at home.

Half a century passed between the premiere of Beethoven’s last symphony and Brahms’s first, which he took nearly half that time to plan and write. His deeply serious approach becomes startlingly evident from the first orchestral sounds: the timpani insistently repeats a C-natural pulse while the strings and winds contrast with sustained lines which sound pulled through time. The triple-meter pulse throughout the first movement, both the slow introduction and the faster main section, does not have a strong rhythmic feel. The dramatic tension comes instead from the harmonic changes and the melodic lines. The rich orchestral sound brought out that drama just right.   

The slightly episodic second movement, Un poco sostenuto, less heavy than some of Brahms’s slow movements, maintained a nice lyrical feel throughout.

The third movement, Un poco allegretto e grazioso, started more like a relaxed folk tune than is often the case, a distinct change in character from the continual tension of the first movement and the sustained lyricism of the slow movement which precede it. William Hudgins, principal clarinet of the BSO, embodied the desired character of the opening tune perfectly. In the middle of the movement the pulse stays the same but switches to three divisions per pulse instead of two. Rattle kept the same pulse speed and the result was faster note movement than usual. But the style of playing, lighter and without tension or too much expressiveness, continued the contrast with the previous movements. I was surprised at the speed but understood the idea and liked it.

Drama returned big time in the multi-section last movement, in the slow sections and the faster ones.  The Alphorn tunes in the slow sections sounded lyrically stentorian as played by the first horn, later joined by the second horn, both from the Philadelphia Orchestra, and Scolnik on flute. Rattle and the orchestra maintained focus and power to the end, not such an easy feat in an intermission-less concert with this repertoire. The audience responded with great enthusiasm.

Mistral Music presented a similar fund-raiser in 2010, reviewed HERE. If you don’t want to wait another 9 years, start attending Mistral Music concerts. And hear more from Julie Skolnick colleagues.  

Crawford Best received his AB degree from Duke University and his MM degree from New England Conservatory of Music. He was principal bassoonist of the New Orleans Philharmonic and Santa Fe Opera Orchestra, bassoonist with the Minnesota Orchestra, and faculty bassoonist of the Dartmouth College Congregation of the Arts.

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