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Music Under the North Star

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Last night the BSO played a selection of scintillating music from more arctic climes. With Hannu Lintu conducting and Seong-Jin Cho as solo pianist, Symphony Hall resounded to the music of Þorvaldsdóttir, Prokofiev, and Sibelius. The concert repeats today and tomorrow.

The program opened with the Boston première of Anna Þorvaldsdóttir’s Metacosmos from 2017. Commissioned for the New York Philharmonic Society and first heard with that orchestra under the direction of Esa-Pekka Salonen in April 2018, this piece commemorates her being named the New York Philharmonic’s Kravis Emerging Composer in 2015. Thursday’s performance marks Þorvaldsdóttir’s entry into the Boston Symphony Orchestra catalogue. Scored for full orchestra with additional low and high winds and brass plus a large complement of percussion, the 14-minute long work is, in the composer’s words, “constructed around the natural balance between beauty and chaos” and is structured around “the speculative metaphor of falling into a black hole.” In her note on this work, she goes on to observe that she is not a programmatic composer:

When I am inspired by a particular element or quality, it is because I perceive it as musically interesting, and the qualities I tend to be inspired by are often structural, like proportion and flow, as well as relationships of balance between details within a larger structure, and how to move in perspective between the two—the details and the unity of the whole.

Certainly the duality of this music comes through in performance. I cannot say I have contemplated the speculative metaphor that incited Þorvaldsdóttir, but I heard different commentary: music coalescing around and irrupting into the industrial soundscape of the Anthropocene.

Metacosmos begins with a low rumble, sustained as voices proliferate, skirring snippets of scalar phrases fly by as birds or bats winging through the night. Glissandi imitate a Doppler effect. Airy, coreless tones give voice to pneumatic sounds of industrial soundscapes. With a nod to the chaconne, violas embark on a five-note ostinato phrase, descending then ascending, resembling a five-note turn, which is passed among the strings. Pneumaticism returns with propulsive rhythmic energy. The music becomes cinematic in breadth. The musical lines coalesce around an organ-like pedal tone, then the five-note phrase returns, this time shared across voices. Lush, neo-Romantic harmonies are thwarted by dissonances (notably, bowed percussion), recalling the distant sounds of sirens. Voices drop out, the center collapses, and sounds simultaneously ascend to the stratosphere and descend to the bathysphere. The music rolls out into silence.

Þorvaldsdóttir represents an important compositional voice, continuing the organic explorations into musical structure that occupied Sibelius, the combinations of musical strata Mahler enjoyed, and the merging of organized and industrial sounds that mark Spectralist and soundscape composers. The (full, not packed) audience in Symphony Hall responded favorably to “Metacosmos”; there might have been a few more late seatings following it than usual, but for those who opened their ears to hear something new, this was a treat. High time Þorvaldsdóttir entered into the BSO library, too. Hopefully Nelsons will program more of her work in future.

Following a stage reset, pianist Seong-Jin Cho took to the Steinway for Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in G Minor, op. 16. First begun in the winter of 1912-13, this student work was first performed in 1913, the composer at the keyboard. The original score was lost in a fire during the 1917 Revolution, so what we hear now is a 1923 reconstruction that was premièred in May, 1924 in Paris with Serge Koussevitzky conducting and the composer again as soloist. Koussevitzky brought the music to Symphony Hall in 1930 and it has been heard many times since then (most recently with Yuja Wang in 2014). Spanning some thirty-two minutes and four movements, the music (in its first incarnation) left listeners “frozen with fright, hair standing on end,” in the words of one critic. Described (decried) as both cubist and futurist, Prokofiev’s music has the spiky angularity and crunchy dissonance we associate with twentieth-century Russian classical works, nods to folk tunes, and jazz riffs.

conductor Hannu Lintu fistbumping soloist Seong-Jin Cho (Hilary Scott photo)

This performance took a different, highly interesting and thoroughly convincing, tack. At the slower tempo we heard, the solo entrance is elegiac, brittle. The mournful piano and oboe combine to intone a scene more tragic than hair raising. As the Andantino intensifies, the tragedy increases. The Allegretto becomes more a discombobulated cakewalk then crashing sonic waves, a tempest of syncopated attacks. The cadenza ends and the orchestra returns with full revolutionary fervor before this opening movement ends quietly, softly. The Scherzo opens at a scarper with quacking reminiscent of Stravinsky, then transforms into a droll dance before ending with manic intensity. The Intermezzo is a weighty interlude, ponderous and lugubrious, the opening notes recalling the ox-carts from Pictures an an Exhibition. The solo line enters, turning the music to another destination; here it is another brittle theme, sharply contrasting the orchestral start. A sinuously seductive interlude, the piano becoming a harp, the orchestra vacationing in a foreign idiom. The piano moves to jazz before the mechanized world of heavy machinery returns. The Finale: Allegro tempestuoso begins with intensity and speed which alternate with a doleful phrase. The cadenza captures this alternation and pairs it with a plodding phrase; the whole takes on a ponderous cast. This music is low-key manic. A happy, almost 1920s pop tune phrase, calls forth all the voices in a brief respite before the lamentations return and the work ends in a monumental fashion.

Cho offered a more ruminative, less inexorable reading of this work than others I have heard. In perusing his biography I learned he is a student of Michel Béroff, whose recording of this piece with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra I know well; these are divergent, yet equally captivating and enlightening, readings of this score. The applause was sudden and sustained. Although the audience craved a second encore, we heard only one. File under: “and now for something completely different”—Debussy, La fille aux cheveux de lin. The tenderness and length of melodic phrase was a bookend to the concerto, contrasting yet complementary.

Sibelius’s Symphony no. 2 in D, op. 43,  from 1902,  is the earliest music on the program, and in many ways it remains as fresh today as when written. In four movements and running some 45 minutes, this is organically structured music refracting the Finnish landscape. When biographer Bengt de Torne mentioned the beauty of returning to Finland from across the Baltic Sea, Sibelius responded, “Yes, and when we see those granite rocks we know why we are able to treat the orchestra as we do!” We hear the granite, but also the tunes of the people. This symphony is a logical extension of Brahms with Nordic inflections; it is programmatic, peppered with citations, filled with grandeur and intense humanity, and it defies our aural expectations of symphonic structure as it expands our worldview much as the second movement ends with the musical equivalent of a mountaintop panorama. I doubt Sibelius knew the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, but the fit phrase for much of what I heard comes from that poet’s “Carrion Comfort”: “wring-world right foot rock.” There is comfort in flinty ruggedness, power and beauty in harsh drama. We heard it all. Lintu melded the themes, maintaining the organic nature of this variable work and sketching out vistas of breathtaking beauty.

Cashman Kerr Prince, trained in Classics and Comparative Literature, is now a Visiting Scholar in the Department of Classical Studies at Wellesley College. He is also a cellist of some accomplishment, currently playing with the Brookline Symphony Orchestra.

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

  1. Great review! Great concert–one of the season’s best for sure! The Thorvaldsdottir work surprised and was quite enjoyable – I’d like to hear it again, and to second the reviewers, would like hear more from her.

    I thought Hannu Lintu’s reading of Sibelius 2 was really interesting, in that he seemed to play up the cragginess and dissonance of the work, stripping it of some of the sweep that I’m familiar with in other readings. I thought the tempos of the first two movements were slower than I would have liked to hear, but the bottom line is it all worked. Yes, I did miss getting swept up into the whirlwind in this reading, but Lintu brought another dimension to the symphony altogether and it was certainly interesting to hear, and valid on its own terms.

    There are two guest conductors we’ve been hearing in recent years at the BSO that I hope the orchestra continues to regularly bring back to Boston: Juanjo Mena, and Hannu Lintu. Both strike me as especially talented and have always given us really interesting, musical, and very alive programs. I’d love to hear much more from both of them. (And while one concert is too small a dataset, I was also really impressed by Dima Slobodeniouk and hope we get to hear more of him as well).

    Comment by Mogulmeister — March 6, 2020 at 2:39 pm

  2. Friday afternoon’s concert was equally satisfying. The Thorvaldsdottir was mysterious and affecting, with some otherworldly instrumental effects. Absorbing throughout, it seemed shorter than the 14-minute length listed in the program and the degree of audience applause evidenced more than polite approval.

    Cho displayed his chops in the Prokofiev to thrilling effect. The first movement was unusually thoughtful and detailed, taken at a pace that allowed for articulation and shaping of phrases that carried through the unwieldy cadenza. The entire concerto offered a bravura display that still left the pianist enough wherewithal to deliver an emphatically percussive encore of Montagues and Capulets from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet.

    The Sibelius was nothing short of a revelation. Lintu made sense of the composer’s long lines and repetitive motives to a degree I’ve not experienced in years of listening to this music. Balances also were revealing in a way that illuminated textures in original ways that remained thoroughly idiomatic. The concluding movement, which can sound unvaried in less expert hands, especially benefitted from an attention to pacing and explication of the sparse thematic material.

    On Lintu’s previous visit we were treated to a fabulous account of the Bartok Concerto for Orchestra. Based on what I heard at the both of his appearances here I hope he becomes a regular guest at the BSO.

    Comment by FKalil — March 7, 2020 at 7:56 am

  3. At some point during the Sibelius on Friday afternoon I realized that Lintu was conducting without a baton. I was fairly certain that he had used one during the first half of the concert so I thought this was a bit curious. At the end of the symphony he stepped off the podium and picked up his baton from the floor. Perhaps someone else who was at this performance and paying better attention noticed what happened. Did the baton fly from his hand at some point or was it missing in action from the beginning?

    Comment by jimq — March 7, 2020 at 10:22 am

  4. To jimq: it flew from his hand at a passionate moment.

    Comment by Martin Cohn — March 7, 2020 at 12:32 pm

  5. To Martin Cohn: Thanks. I’m sorry I missed that. Gotta pay more attention next time.

    Comment by jimq — March 7, 2020 at 12:55 pm

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