IN: Reviews

Darkness Sensationally Decried


Toro Takemitsu

Friday night’s concert in Jordan Hall continued A Far Cry’s astonishing run, this time in partnership with the fabulous soprano Sonja Dutoit Tengblad and burnished bass-baritone Dashon Burton. It also introduced me to two important and sensational pieces, Takemitsu’s Requiem and Shostakovich’s 14th Symphony. One never noticed any loss of ensemble togetherness from the presence of  eight guest Criers on stage. The double basses (Karl Doty and Guest Cryer Randy Zigler) and string soloists, especially, sounded formidably together.

The largely self-taught Toro Takemitsu’s first encountered Western classical music, which had been banned during the WWII, in 1947. In an effort to educate himself, he would walk through the city searching for the sound of a piano, and would “ask to touch the piano for five minutes. I was never refused!” Takemitsu worked for the US Armed Forces, but was hospitalized in 1953 with tuberculosis. During that time, he spent many hours listening to the Western canon on the US Armed Forces network radio. The discovery of those classics helped Takemitsu to recover from his terrible war trauma. “My first teacher was the radio,” said Takemitsu. The composer recalled his military life after conscription in 1944 as “extremely bitter.” Later in life, Japanese traditional music “always recalled the bitter memories of war.”

Takemitsu absorbed Debussy and Messiaen, as well as his Japanese contemporaries. His first large scale work for a large ensemble, and the one that introduced him to the West, was his Requiem for String Orchestra, dedicated to the memory of his colleague, the film composer Fumio Hoyasaka. Stravinsky’s hearing of this piece while on tour in Japan in 1959 led him to declare the it a masterpiece of sustained intensity. 

Listening to this Requiem, felt like recalling the saddest day of one’s life, one with unrelieved melancholy, at least in the piece’s first four minutes. Concertmaster Zenas Hsu sounded most impressive. (I learned at the reception that the Criers might rethink their custom of not noting takes the concertmaster position in each piece.

Shostakovich’s nearly one-hour-long 14th Symphony obsesses over unnatural death: deaths caused by oppression, murder, and war. His choice of direly sad poems by Lorca, Apollinaire, Wilhelm Kuchelbecker, and Rilke set a tragic tone throughout, regardless of the poetry and who sang it. Conductor Mark Wigglesworth, in 1999, wrote: 

In fact there is not one ‘normal’ death described in the whole work and it is significant that all four of the poets whose words Shostakovich chose to set died in somewhat less than natural circumstances. Lorca was shot without trial during the Spanish Civil War; Apollinaire died in 1918 from the wounds he received during World War I; Rilke died in 1926 at the age of 51 from a rare form of leukemia, and Küchelbecker was sent to Siberia for his part in the failed Decembrist uprising against the Tsars in 1825, where he died deaf and blind in 1846. Shostakovich’s symphony is a tribute to all who have died in pain, but particularly to the fellow suffering artists with whom he felt such affinity.

Kathryn J. Allwine Bacasmot, the program annotator, explains that Shostakovich observed

Fear of death may be the most intense emotion of all, I sometimes think that there is no greater feeling. The irony lies in the fact that under the influence of that fear, people create poetry, prose and music; that is, they try to strengthen their ties with the living and increase there influence upon they. How can you not fear death? I wrote a number of works reflect citing my understanding of the question. The most important of them is the Fourteenth Symphony…. I wish my listeners to realize that life is truly beautiful. My symphony is an impassioned protest against death, a reminder to the living that they should live honestly, conscientiously, nobly, never committing a base act.

Burton sonorously imbued his selections and duets with visceral excitement and majesty. Shostakovich here focused on contrasts in range; hence the other singer, the luminous soprano Sonja Tengblad. In the same way, the double basses often duetted with higher strings. The dim lighting in the hall made this listener give up on following the poems, and thus I could glean absolutely nothing from the apparently impeccable in Russian. I noticed that no one anywhere near me had a program open. Surely, this can be remedied easily by asking for the lights not to be dimmed so much, or by providing surtitles.

These complaints aside, this song cycle/symphony held one spellbound. The two guest percussionists, Bill Manley and Nick Tolle, added a huge amount of color and spookiness with wood block, castanets, whip, tom-toms, xylophone, Tubular bells, vibraphone, and celesta. Raphael Popper-Keizer contributed magnificent cello playing in several solos and in a long duet with Tengblad which provided one of the symphony’s most stellar moments. The two extremely charismatic singers held my attention every moment they sang and delivered their tragic songs to dramatic perfection. Tengblad’s high notes glistened, with overall affect both thrilling and compelling. Jesse Irons stood as concertmaster.

The stand-up Criers closed with the poignant Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, a welcome salve after so much darkness.

Susan Miron is a book critic, essayist, and harpist. She writes about classical music and books for The Arts Fuse. Her last two CDs featured her transcriptions of keyboard music of Domenico Scarlatti.

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  1. For the non-specialist familiar with the size of ‘A Far Cry”s normal complement, it might be worth noting that Shostakovich’s scoring is not so ‘far’ removed from what they bring. Thus, no arrangement necessary, as with Schoenberg/Mahler. Per Wikipedia:

    Besides the soloists, the symphony is scored for a chamber orchestra consisting only of strings and percussion. The strings consist of ten violins, four violas, three cellos, and two double basses, and the percussion section (three players) includes wood block, castanets, whip, soprano, alto and tenor tom-toms, xylophone, Tubular bells, vibraphone, and celesta. The percussion section does not include common instruments such as timpani, bass drum, cymbals, or triangle.

    Comment by Camilli — January 12, 2020 at 5:42 pm

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