IN: Reviews

BSO Scrambles for Relevance


Like many another arts organization, the Boston Symphony is scrambling this year to keep itself relevant and audiences engaged through parlous times. For its usual Tanglewood summer season it and its related entities, the Tanglewood Music Center (TMC) and the new Tanglewood Learning Institute, have come up with variegated strategies to provide online substitutes for their intended tangible offerings. As the Intelligencer reported HERE, these include a mix of “encore” webcasts of specific past performances, a few new webcasts of live events where the number of participants can be accommodated in appropriately distanced spaces, and some, like the one we’ll discuss here, that assemble a mixed program taken from previously recorded concerts.

As part of a series of TMC chamber music programs uploaded on Sunday mornings, on June 12th the BSO released, free to those who have or create a BSO account at, a synthetic concert of works featuring wind and brass instruments, performed mostly by TMC Fellows. The show is packaged more or less like a BSO radio broadcast, with a host (Norman Fischer, Director of Chamber Music at Tanglewood and professor of cello at Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music), a guest (BSO second trumpet Thomas Siders), with recordings (no video, alas) made between 2016 and 2018. As it happens, only one of these performances had been covered by the Intelligencer, so we’ll provide a few notes to inform readers who might be interested in listening. Even sadder than not having visuals, though, is the absence of program notes or the texts of sung pieces, a defect so easily remediable that it prompts the classic “what were they thinking?” reaction.

The program is bookended by substantial 20th-century pieces, the Poulenc Sextet for wind quintet and piano and the Hindemith Octet for winds and strings. Between these came a set of mostly short pieces—sometimes movements from longer works—for brass ensembles with and without percussion, including premieres of two Tanglewood commissions from TMC Composition Fellows.

The Poulenc is probably the best-known bit of the program. Completed and premiered in 1933 but extensively revised in 1939, it did not define the genre—our researches award that honor to Louise Farrenc’s sextet from 1852, with a similarly intrumented gem by Viennese Ludwig Thuille from 1888. The performance on the webcast dates from 2017, with Susan Kang, flute; Kristen Perry, oboe; Taylor Marino, clarinet; Joshua Ote, horn; Joe Merchant, bassoon, and Elizabeth Dorman, piano. The playing left nothing to be desired: the ensemble was wonderfully tight, the tempi seriously brisk in the fast bits, seductively languid in the slow, and expressivity first-rate, capturing Poulenc’s essential bittersweet clownishness. Special props to Merchant’s introduction to the “B” section of the first movement. A great performance overall.

A 2018 concert by the TMC Brass Fellows provided most of the brass set:

  1. The Ave Maria (1861) from Three Motets by Anton Bruckner, which were originally a cappella pieces written over decades and arranged and compiled by Ralph Sauer. This fact was not disclosed in the performance information or in Fischer or Siders’s commentary, for shame.
  2. The first of the premieres, Ninfea Cruttwell-Reade’s Table Talk, a bright and snappy three-sectional with percussion, offering tinges of William Schuman and some charming textural layering, with the ensemble here conducted by Gemma New. We’d tell you more about what the title means but—did we mention?— no program notes could we find.
  3. Edvard Grieg’s stately Funeral March for Rikard Nordraak (New conducting). Nordraak was a composer friend of Grieg’s who persuaded him to explore Norwegian folk idioms, and who wrote what became the Norwegian national anthem but who, like Schumann’s contemporary Norbert Burgmüller, died tragically young (23).
  4. Apocalypse, the second movement of the 1947 Fanfares Liturgiques by Henri Tomasi (1901-1971), conducted by Yu An Chang. An off-kilter “scherzo,” it displayed a film-score sensibility.
  5. A 2017 performance conducted by Steven Asbury of Richard Strauss’s 1943 Festmusik der Stadt Wien, for a large ensemble of brass and percussion necessitating supplementing the TMC Fellows with members of the BSO, including as part of the 10-strong trumpet section Siders and Andris Nelsons. Written for a rare pleasant event in those years (Strauss received an honor from the city of Vienna), the music is properly late Strauss, but harkens back to the glory days of his tone poems.
  6. Finally, the second premiere, the first of Theo[philus] Chandler’s Two Taylor Songs, entitled “child in kitchen,” conducted by Chang and featuring Ally [Alexandra] Smither, soprano. Our colleague Jeffrey Gantz discussed this item in his more general review of Tanglewood events that day, available HERE. We would evaluate the piece a bit more generously than he did, at least the instrumental aspects of it; the vocal part, though smartly performed, did seem over the top in a David del Tredici sort of way. We could evaluate that better by comparing it to the text, but—did we mention?— BSO supplied none.
The view from the stream.

We don’t get to hear the 1958 Hindemith Octet nearly often enough. Back in the day, we bought the premiere recording of it, and immediately loved it. Hindemith wrote it for the same forces as Beethoven’s op. 20 Septet, plus a second viola (or, if you prefer, for the same forces as Schubert’s Octet substituting a second viola for the first violin). The two violas, one of whom was presumably intended to be Hindemith, actually take the role normally occupied by the violins in a string quartet. The writing finds Hindemith at the top of his game for inspiration, rising above the sort of impeccably crafted gray mass into which a fair chunk of the composer’s vast oeuvre slipped. The 2016 traversal captured on this webcast featured Matthew Griffith, clarinet; Corbin Castro, horn; Naho Zhu, bassoon; Cosima Soulez Lariviere, violin; Xinyi Xu and Meredith Treaster, viola; David Olson, cello; and Charles Paul, bass. As with all the execution on this sound stream, theirs ran to top-notch, albeit at tempi a bit more deliberate than we’d like.

A few final remarks about atmospherics: Obviously, the sound of a webcast can’t compete with in-person listening, but this one broadcast excellent sound; we listened on a good pair of studio headphones, but if your computer has decent speakers or if you have better than minimum-quality ear buds, you should do fine. Or for that matter, listen on your hi-fi. In this YouTube era, we regretted the missing video capture, but you can’t recover what never existed. What can be fixed, though, should be: please give us texts and program notes.

Finally, how can the BSO’s web site require such a byzantine navigational odyssey to cast users ashore on the webstream? Having taken your email address to “register” for this event or set up your account and taken your money (note that although the program just discussed is free, many others on the festival come with a charge), the BSO could at least send you a savable direct link. Furthermore, the site provides no “Play” button. How is one to know to click “Streaming Details” instead? And be sure to bring a long thread with you: the site forgets your login credentials, so you have to navigate through a maze to get there and then pretend to re-register to get back to the stream. With a staff bigger than the Pentagon’s, you’d think the BSO would have someone to work through these user-interface details. My publisher tells of one would-be reviewer who simply gave up.

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.

1 Comment »

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

  1. I’m sure all of Mr. Koven’s criticisms about missing program notes and difficult web interfaces and so on are in some sense accurate, and perhaps the BSO can make some productive adjustments in light of his remarks, but the snarkiness of this review seems a bit off to this reader, in light of truly heartbreaking conditions for music-making.

    Comment by musicappreciation — July 15, 2020 at 6:22 pm

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