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BSO Evokes Moscow, Vienna, and Formosa

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Chihchun Chi-sun Lee (Robert Torres photo)

This weekend’s Boston Symphony Orchestra concerts, under Taiwanese BSO assistant conductor Yu-An Chang, have a little of everything. There’s something new: the world premiere of Formosan Triptych, a BSO commission from Taiwanese composer Chihchun Chi-sun Lee. There’s something familiar: Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 25, with Till Fellner from Vienna. And something unfamiliar: a 19th-century wannabe warhorse that the orchestra had programmed just twice before in Symphony Hall. You wouldn’t expect that last one to be a Tchaikovsky symphony, but after first performing No. 3 — nicknamed the Polish — in 1899, the BSO didn’t play it again till 1995, under Seiji Ozawa, and the orchestra’s only performance since then came under Neville Marriner at Tanglewood in 2002.

The troika might look like motley, but all three examples bespoke national pride. Formosan Triptych celebrates the multiplicity of Taiwan’s musical riches. The Mozart piano concerto is steeped in imperial Vienna, the city where Fellner was born. And forget the nickname — Tchaikovsky’s Third Symphony is a paean to tsarist Russia. Not to mention that Mozart was one of Tchaikovsky’s favorite composers. So the program cohered in spirit, though the execution of the Mozart and Tchaikovsky on Thursday disappointed.        

In her printed introduction, Lee states that Formosan Triptych “consists of three important musical heritages from Taiwan: the music from Taiwan’s indigenous Austronesian tribes, traditional Sinitic Hok-lo folklore, and traditional Sinitic Hakka songs.” It runs about 15 minutes; the orchestration, apart from some Chinese instruments in the percussion array, is Western, but as Robert Kirzinger points out in his program note, “some of the sounds called for require Western instruments to mimic some of their Eastern counterparts.”

Which is hardly surprising given that Lee makes reference to the “descantal counterpoint and microtonal texture” of Taiwan’s aboriginal tribes. The first movement, she explains, is inspired by “eight-part microtonal harvest ritual music” from the Bunun tribe. The second movement draws on opera, narrative songs, and folk songs from the Hok-lo people, the third on the mountain songs and ba-yin (eight sounds”) music of the Hakka people, particularly from the southern port city of Kaohsiung, where Lee was born. Lee adds that she gave her piece its title in tribute to William Schuman’s New England Triptych.

Although the three movements of Formosan Triptych are continuous, they’re discrete, each one running about five minutes. The first section begins deep down (I thought of Das Rheingold), and one can hear that Western ideas of pitch are in question. Winds play slowly against a shimmering backdrop; what sounds like folk music breaks out in the midst of portamento and muted brass. The more animated second movement initially pits cor anglais and oboe against the ocean drum, whose metal beads suggest the sound of waves rolling over and sometimes crashing on sand. Toward the end, the trio of marimba, xylophone, and vibraphone take over. The brass phrases near the end are marked “Mahler-like” in the score, though I didn’t hear the resemblance. The final section brings unmuted brass and a strong presence of marimba and xylophone that suggested to me a kind of angular, operatic movement.

Kirzinger’s essay —extensive and well worth reading on line — talks of a “ ‘Penderecki-like’ sound-mass quality” in the first movement and how “the disparity between the twelve-tone equal-tempered Western scale and the microtonality of the Bunun vocal tradition creates harmonic tension and resolution.” In the second movement there’s mention of “brass players blowing without pitch through the instruments.” I wonder how much of that, or the polyphony and heterophony, registered with the amply responsive audience. I felt a bit as if I were watching a foreign film with no subtitles Formosan Triptych, like some other recent BSO commissions, seemed to be speaking in a language all its own, though an ingratiating one. A fellow BMInt writer, native to Taiwan, recognized the musical allusions and responded with warm pride.

Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 25, completed early in December 1786 and premiered — we think — in Vienna later that month, during the year of Le nozze di Figaro, with Don Giovanni to follow in 1787. Mozart’s other concertos of that period— notably Nos. 20 through 24 —often possess operatic character, and set miniature dramas. With its battery of trumpets and timpani, No. 25 at first seems more symphonic, and yet after the opening orchestral fanfare, all pomp and circumstance, I still hear Figaro sneaking in, stealthy and mischievous, hinting at minor keys. You can argue over whether the first 50 bars serve as introduction or part of the exposition; whatever, the Allegro maestoso’s themes, which are closely related, all skip about as if Figaro had somehow induced Count Almaviva and the rest of his court to forsake martial glory in favor of hopscotch. The Andante gets off to a rustic start; we’re outdoors, there are occasional gusts of wind and what might be bird calls — or a lover sighing. The piano finally enters wistful and melancholy: Countess Rosina listening to a nightingale, or perhaps, if we look ahead, a mismatched couple from Cosí fan tutte on a moonlit stroll. For the concluding Allegretto, Mozart recycled the gavotte from his 1781 opera Idomeneo, and just as its measured joy begins to flag, the piano introduces a lyric theme that re-energizes the dance.

That Fellner studied with Alfred Brendel showed in his classical interpretation with impeccable passagework; stealth and mischief were seldom evident, though. Chang’s treatment of the opening orchestral tutti wasn’t particularly grand, and the Allegro maestoso rolled out with little drama. Mozart’s own first-movement cadenza for this concerto is lost; Fellner played Brendel’s, with its thoughtful rather than virtuosic treatment of the major themes.

The compact Andante took on emotional weight if not rapture from Fellner; at one point, just before the main section returns, the piano seemed to get covered by the winds. Chang made the gavotte of the Allegretto unexpectedly slow and rounded — this was not the most rousing of finales. Yet flutist Elizabeth Ostling, oboist Keisuke Wakao and Fellner engaged in some affecting interplay (when the pianist wasn’t spinning out inhumanly even scales) which began to suggest a sad wisdom in this dance, as if Mozart were somehow anticipating the hardships of his final years.

I was never a huge fan of Brendel’s playing — he’s an edifying writer, but on the various occasions I heard him live, it was if the piano had forgotten how to breathe. I had a similar impression from listening to Fellner, and yet the end of the Allegretto left me wondering whether I had been listening for the wrong things. In any case, this was an interpretation to make you think rather than feel.        

I had no better luck with Chang’s interpretation of the Tchaikovsky’s Third Symphony (from 1875); it premiered in Moscow in November of that year, arrived in St. Petersburg in 1876 and in New York — the first performance outside Russia — in 1879, but it didn’t debut in Great Britain till 1899, well after the composer’s death.The conductor on that occasion, Sir August Manns, appears to have been the person who gave it the title Polish. Observing that the “Allegro con fuoco” Finale is marked “tempo di polacca” and that this movement indeed has the rhythms of a polonaise, Manns may have concluded that Tchaikovsky meant the symphony as a statement about Polish culture, if not independence. But in Tchaikovsky’s day the polonaise had long since been adopted as a symbol of tsarist Russia. That’s how one hears the polonaise in the composer’s opera Evgeny Onegin, the polonaise at the end of his Third Orchestral Suite, the polonaise-like introduction to the First Piano Concerto, and the Finale of this symphony. I could add that the second movement is marked “Alla tedesca,” but no one has ever proposed to call No. 3 the German.  

The Third is the only one of Tchaikovsky’s symphonies to have five movements; in this he may have been inspired by Schumann’s Rhenish Symphony, a work that had impressed him during his student days. The Introduzione is marked “Moderato assai (Tempo di marcia funebre),” which might lead you to wonder whose funeral it is. The Allegro that follows — marked “Allegro brillante” — comprises a grand syncopated march, an appealing oboe theme, and an energetic Russian folk dance that builds to a spirited climax. The “Alla tedesca” — “In the German style” — of the second movement could refer to the allemande, the ländler, or the waltz. Tchaikovsky makes a graceful rustic waltz of it, with a triplet-saturated trio in the same tempo. The middle movement, also in 3/4, is marked “Andante elegiaco”; it’s one of Tchaikovsky’s great lyrical inspirations, but again one wonders whose elegy and why the relatively quick tempo marking. (Conductors have certainly wondered: recorded timings for this movement range from Antal Dorati’s 7:24 to Igor Markevitch’s 11:43.) Following that is a 2/4 Scherzo for muted strings, with a march-like Trio and a couple of trombone solos. Then the rondo-like polonaise Finale, complete with big fugue and hymn-like chorale.

Some critics consider the Third more of a ballet score than a symphony. George Balanchine used it as the music for Diamonds — the finale of his 1967 evening-length trio Jewels — but omitted the first movement as “unsuitable for dancing.” Balanchine also omitted the opening movement to Mendelssohn’s Third Symphony when he choreographed Scotch Symphony, and his Theme and Variations is set to just the final movement from Tchaikovsky’s Third Orchestral Suite. A consideration here may have been that setting the entire symphony would have extended the length of Diamonds from a half-hour to 45 minutes. Certainly, the opening movement of the Third is no less danceable than the opening movement of Tchaikovsky’s Second Piano Concerto is, and Balanchine did set that movement when he choreographed Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2.    

YuAn Chang and Till Fellner (Robert Torres photo)

Dance considerations aside, the Third describes a clear arc, descending from celebration into wistful uncertainty and then rising back up. Unlike the Fifth, which the BSO played two weeks ago, the Third has no metronome markings, and the Introduzione’s “Moderato assai (Tempo di marcia funebre)” has had conductors guessing. Chang took this section at a sensible pace, though without much phrasing or molding. When the flutes introduce a new idea (bar 34), Tchaikovsky marks the proceedings to go “Poco piú mosso”; here Chang was jarringly faster, and then the subsequent “Poco a poco accelerando” seemed to accelerate too quickly. The “Allegro brillante” was at least a real Allegro, and principal oboe John Ferrillo was poignant in his solo introduction of the second subject. But the development and recapitulation were hectic, balances were out of whack (too much brass), and the coda, marked “Piú mosso,” actually slowed down.

Tchaikovsky marks the waltz “Allegro moderato e semplice”; it generally runs just under six minutes. Chang took closer to seven, and the dance pulse sagged, despite the ripe winds. The Trio is marked to go at the same tempo, but it has to feel different; here the triplets were static and had no energy. The Andante elegiaco was more disappointing still. Balanchine made this movement the centerpiece of Diamonds, a pas de deux suggesting hunter and unicorn. The first 34 bars, with their edgy wind triplets and pizzicato strings, are all expectancy; when the free-flowing melody breaks out, one could hear sorrow or passion. Chang opted for passion, but the movement, at some eight minutes, was hard-driven throughout, no drama, no ebb and flow, no shading until the final mournful French horn call.

The Scherzo went well enough, though, as with the waltz, the Trio, at the same tempo, didn’t provide any contrast. The Finale is marked “Allegro con fuoco,” which Chang seemed to interpret as a direction to play very loud and very fast. It was exciting, at the cost of some detail; Chang hammered at the fugue, and the chorale — which to me has always suggested a naval hymn — barely opened out. The coda went at the original tempo, as marked, concluding in an explosion of brass and timpani. But at no point did the movement sound like a polonaise.

The second balcony, where I regularly sit in Symphony Hall, was hardly more than a third full, and could see swaths of empty seats in the first balcony. Perhaps that’s to be expected from a January program with a guest conductor and soloist who aren’t household names — even from one with an intriguing commission premiere. Still, Fellner’s Mozart offered food for thought. And the Tchaikovsky, even in a perplexing interpretation, was welcome. I hope the BSO doesn’t wait another 25 years to play it again.

Jeffrey Gantz has been writing about music, dance, theater, art, film, and books for the past 35 years, first for the Boston Phoenix and currently for the Boston Globe.

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

  1. I understand the reviewer’s reaction to Fellner’s playing, but I myself heard it very differently. I found it elegant and deeply-Mozartian. It evoked a vanished aristocratic world in which “showmanship” had not yet introduced a sort of competition between the score and the performer. I felt that Fellner’s approach was subtly very bold, contemplative and wise: the score, he implied, did not need “interpretation” — just to be allowed to soar freely, with great simplicity. The feeling was one of unity, freshness and transparency.

    Comment by Ashley — January 20, 2020 at 11:35 am

  2. I’m not sure which performance Ashley heard, but I couldn’t describe Till Fellner’s Saturday performance any better. It truly soared, with a feeling of unity, freshness, and transparency, and after a slightly attenuated introduction, the orchestra soared along with him.

    Much as I’ve enjoyed and deeply appreciated many performances and recordings by Alfred Brendel, I hear the work of his mentees Till Fellner and Paul Lewis quite differently. Brendel’s gifts extend, I think, well beyond the fingers: both his writings and pedagogy are insightful, spry, and humanistic. I’m sure both Fellner and Lewis would agree that he has helped them discover and bring out their best, rather than his.

    Comment by nimitta — January 21, 2020 at 9:11 am

  3. I heard Fellner’s Thursday night performance — the same performance that is described in the review. Thank you, Nimitta. I am very glad that you concur.

    Comment by Ashley — January 21, 2020 at 11:31 am

  4. I also heard Fellner’s Thursday night performance and reacted similarly to Jeffrey Gantz. I found it boring. I can’t say that Fellner played poorly, as he seemed to play all the notes correctly, but many conservatory students are technically proficient. It seemed to lack emotion. I don’t know Tchaikovsky’s Third Symphony well enough to evaluate the Boston Symphony’s interpretation of it, but I did enjoy hearing it. However you want to classify the work, it is good music. It is interesting how some musical pieces are regularly performed while others are rarely heard. I believe that Tchaikovsky’s Third Symphony is greatly underrated.

    Comment by Bennett — January 21, 2020 at 5:48 pm

  5. I’ve always thought Tchaikovsky’s Third to be a very lovable symphony. It strikes me as a more technically accomplished work than the Second, with a particularly good first movement. The themes are mostly memorable, and I can even smile at the slightly tawdry second theme in the finale (the “naval hymn” that Mr. Gantz mentions).

    As for the performance, I had no problem with the conductor’s steady and sometimes brisk tempi. This is not a symphony that requires a lot of “interpretation” with a lot of pushing and pulling on the conductor’s part. Both “live” performances that I’ve heard in Symphony Hall (the other one being Ozawa’s) have effectively demonstrated the quality of the symphony. It was a good choice on the part of conductor YuAn Chang, who might have chosen to give us another over-played warhorse.

    Comment by George Hungerford — January 22, 2020 at 6:23 pm

  6. When Marriner performed this at T’wood the edition was marred by cuts. How was this performance handled? The same cuts, or complete from start-to-finish?

    Comment by Don Drewecki — January 22, 2020 at 8:51 pm

  7. That is, the Tchaikovsky 3rd.

    Comment by Don Drewecki — January 22, 2020 at 8:52 pm

  8. Re: Don Drewecki’s comment: Yes, I remember hearing Marriner’s Tanglewood performance of the Third on the radio, and I was annoyed at his cuts in the piece. After all, the symphony is not overly long or repetitious. As far as I could tell, conductor Chang played the symphony complete, although I wouldn’t swear to it.

    Comment by George Hungerford — January 22, 2020 at 9:20 pm

  9. In regard to the question of cuts raised by Don and George: That was news to me. I did not attend of hear Marriner’s performance. I do own 7 or 8 recordings of the Tchaikovsky Third; there are no cuts and no suggestion in the liner notes that the symphony has ever been cut in performance. Not to say that Marriner didn’t, but I can’t imagine why anybody would want to. Can someone tell me where the cuts were made?

    Comment by Jeffrey Gantz — January 23, 2020 at 3:09 pm

  10. To answer Jeffrey’s question about cuts in the Tchaikovsky Third, I seem to remember Marriner making only one in the finale, perhaps in the fugal section. I thought that perhaps I wasn’t paying attention and might have missed something while listening on the radio, but now that Don has brought it up, I think there was a cut. By the way, isn’t it interesting that we are having this conversation about such an infrequently performed work?

    Comment by George Hungerford — January 23, 2020 at 7:46 pm

  11. I counted at least four cuts large and small in Marriner’s performance at Tanglewood, which i attended. The recording I really know and love and consider definitive is Karajan’s with the BPO on DG from the late 1970s. It’s one of that conductor’s truly great recordings, seldom discussed, but it is amazing. And, at Saratoga three summers ago, Gianandrea Noseda also led a brilliant performance with the Philadelphia Orchestra, spoiled only by a too-fast introduction to the first movement.

    Comment by Don Drewecki — January 24, 2020 at 1:04 pm

  12. How did Jansons do with it? Some of his other Tchaikovsky set was quite stunning.

    Comment by Camilli — January 25, 2020 at 6:19 pm

  13. I myself heard the jansons only once, years ago, and it wasn’t on the level of Karajan’s

    Comment by Don Drewecki — January 26, 2020 at 2:06 pm

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