IN: Reviews

BSO Speaks French with Robertson


Michael Monaghan, produced inimitable sound.

Guest conductor David Robertson posited Milhaud and Honegger as fraternal twins—one urban, one rural—for BSO Online. A down-sized contingent compared Milhaud to an Ellington sounding every measure the chic Frenchman, and shepherded Honegger to an awakening Swiss landscape. American-Israeli pianist Inon Barnatan headed Ravel toward latency.

From Thursday, March 18th through Saturday, April 17th, David Robertson leads the BSO online in an all-French theme, “A Fragile Peace: Between the Wars, Episode 2.”

It is well-documented that jazz caught Milhaud’s ear, inspiring La Création du monde from 1920. Milhaud spoke jazz “fluently but with a French accent,” according to Robertson. Création is an expression of the “joy and wonder humans are capable of.” A sight it was to see the small orchestra’s players spaced across Symphony Hall’s stage against a contrasting abundance of closeups of soloing. Standing out amidst traditional instruments, alto saxophonist Michael Monaghan produced inimitable sound, pointing to jazz’s way of doing things. Milhaud’s own polyphony of New Orleans jazz took a cool, if not sublime, routing under Robertson. Throughout, a sophistication called up Ellington and bluesy motives in tuxes. Robertson’s own melodiousness could be seen even through a half-masked face. Tenderness and brightness marked the opening and fugal sections respectively. A singular, beautiful Création.

Honegger’s Pastorale d’été rejecting “if you were on a hill you could be shot” for a moment of time to reflect on “how beautiful is nature.” With Robertson, a smaller BSO conveyed a sense of taking in fresh Swiss air, glancing here then there, asking what could that be over there. The bassoon and clarinet would answer in pastoral nods, strings providing warmth in a most compelling verdant vista. Robertson’s poetics should remain a pastoral souvenir.

The episode’s feature profiled Mademoiselle Nadia Boulanger, who studied with Fauré, taught as many students as there are drugstores—a paraphrase from Virgil Thomson—was elected first woman to conduct the BSO, and, most touchingly, kept alive the memory of her sister, Lily, who died at the age of 24. Puzzling, then, was the conspicuous absence of a work of Lily’s in the all-women chamber music scheduling. 

Robertson described piano soloist Inon Barnatan as “sensational.” For this listener, that would mean an astonishing, if not extraordinary, departure from the oft-played and well-loved Piano Concerto in G Major of Maurice Ravel.  Robertson’s interpretation appears to originate with the wartime composer as having a “sense of wanting to control things.” Could that take have been shared by the pianist? Both conductor and pianist, in turn, messaged control. The “different” concerto movements, as Robertson described them, realigned, dreaming rather than enacting verve, testing subconsciousness (the ultra-soft harp glissandos for instance).

Flutist Elizabeth Klein gets the last word in Marion Bauer’s Forgotten Modes. (screen grab)

Despite seeing an animated Robertson, it was all too much of a played-down Ravel. Various shots of the Adagio assai also steered from an intimate and intensely centering movement that has left listeners in previous BSO performances breathless. In the third movement with its repeated dissonant chords, Robertson directed listening to “goose stepping.” This allusion to the militaristic provided a startling wakeup-call to end this vision where not much had happened.

A chamber music performance immediately followed, featuring another woman composer. Daughter of French Jewish immigrants and a student of Nadia Boulanger, American composer Marion Bauer (1882 1955) taught at NYU and Julliard. The title of her Forgotten Modes, Op. 29, refers to the early Greek modes as in Dorian and Phrygian on which the five pieces for solo flute are based. The chromaticism that figures in her writing makes the modes not so easily discernible. Few melodic phrases stand out after one listening. Elizabeth Klein, BSO Assistant Principal Flute, proved flute splendor, crossing registers as though non-existent, breathing as though in a single respiration, and melos as though in lyric singing. Videographer Habib Azar’s most moving moment came with an extended shot of Klein before an empty Symphony Hall.

David Patterson, Professor of Music and former Chair of the Performing Arts Department at UMass Boston, was recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Award and the Chancellor’s Distinction in Teaching Award. He studied with Nadia Boulanger and Olivier Messiaen in Paris and holds a PhD from Harvard University.  He is theauthor of 20 Little Piano Pieces from Around the World (G. Schirmer).

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  1. What a thrill to see BSO flutist sharing Marion Bauer piece……………..
    so glad she appreciates a forgotten American composer

    Comment by virginia eskin — March 24, 2021 at 8:58 am

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