IN: Reviews

LS Triumphs Over Russian Terrors


Jonathan McPhee

Despite living just two towns and four miles away from the cradle of the American Revolution, last night, for only the second time in 50 years, I ventured to hear an orchestra there.  The chance to hear Stravinsky’s Firebird ballet induced me to make the easy trek. I knew the Lexington Symphony director, Jonathan McPhee, as a thoroughly experienced conductor who had directed the Boston Ballet for 28 years, and thus felt particularly interested to hear how he had reduced the orchestration of the complete Firebird, after Stravinsky himself had trimmed it down while preparing three different concert suites (the best-known being that of 1919, representing about half the music).

Cary Hall, with a medium-wide but deep stage, was set up with a reflective shell which effectively projected the sound outward. McPhee began impressively with measured words about the orchestra’s first live appearance with an audience in many months. He spoke clearly about why he had made practical adjustments to the orchestration of Stravinsky’s Firebird ballet (which the composer himself, at age 80, had described as “wastefully large” for a score he had composed at age 28), and he didn’t try to go through the story in a youth-concert manner but got right down to business. His conducting style is efficient, controlled, clear, and without histrionics, despite a really large beat in wide arcs which doubtless come from his years in the opera pit.

Flare, a six-minute orchestral prelude by the British composer Joanna Marsh (born 1970), ostensibly depicted gas flares at an oil field in the Middle East, with an industrial component on the one hand and environmental reaction on the other. I confess I heard none of these; what I heard instead was interestingly repetitive, bell-like tolling of smeared tonal harmonies, probably 12/8 and 9/8 meters, and an agreeable feeling for harmonic organization—complex but definitely perceptible. The orchestral color was complex as well—bright, shifting, and penetrating; if there was too much miscellaneous percussion, that is absolutely typical of nearly every new orchestral score today, but of no particular concern, in this likeable piece.

Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain, which many of us remember from Disney’s Fantasia (1940), has never seemed fully satisfactory as a concert piece, notwithstanding its very modern and chilling sound qualities. The problem seems to be the form, which is overly repetitive and uniformly loud in the repetitions, and which doesn’t really go anywhere; it stays too long on the mountaintop, despite the quiet, glowing ending. Mussorgsky, as we all know, had trouble handling larger forms, and he revised this work several times; but the version that we all hear is the revision by Rimsky-Korsakov, who is well known for his rearrangements and reorchestrations of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov (Stravinsky referred to those treatments as Rimsky’s “Meyerbeerization” of Mussorgsky’s great work). There’s no doubt that Rimsky-Korsakov was both masterly and highly original in his use of orchestral color, but he didn’t solve the formal problems of this concert favorite, if indeed he didn’t add more to them. But the Lexington players sizzled and soared through the infernalities in admirable style. (I can also mention here Cindy Fong’s well-written notes for this work—generous as elsewhere in the booklet.)

Wagner’s overture to The Flying Dutchman, from his earliest work (1842) that is regularly heard at orchestral concerts, has virtues and flaws that are apparent together; it’s melodically expressive and orchestrally brilliant, but it is too long-winded. If Mendelssohn had written his Hebrides or Melusine while simultaneously striving to keep being washed overboard during a storm at sea, the result might have sounded somewhat like this, yet neither as brazen nor as exciting. The orchestra approached fearlessly to great effect.

The ensemble’s string complement of 8-10-8-6-4 felt light on bass in the reduced Firebird. As far as I could determine, nearly all of Jonathan McPhee’s revisions were effective and convincing, but only those who really know the original 1910 score, might notice such changes as the two-against-three at No. 2 in the divided basses, doubled by paired contrabassoons which were replaced here by trombones. The warm divided strings at No. 38 in the “Supplication” scene are muted in the original; with reduced strings, maybe a fuller sound could have resulted if the mutes had come off, despite the change in tone quality. I noticed that the col legno cellos and basses at No. 33 had violas added, no doubt because of the absence of the original Harps II and III, and this made sense. But there must have been many changes in timbre and balance that I couldn’t detect without more hearing, other, naturally, than the less massive sound. I missed the trombone glisses at No. 179. At No. 188, Kashchei’s awakening, which is motivic, had contrabasses substituting for contrabassoons; I think muted tuba and bass trombone ought to be tried for this gnarl.

Aside from one poor coordination with the offstage trumpets in the “Magic Carillon” scene (Nos. 98-99), this Firebird took flight flawlessly. McPhee placed the muted tuba offstage, too, substituting as far as possible for the Wagner tubas called for in the score (No. 105). (Cecil Forsyth’s amusing but very outdated orchestration text has only a single mention of Stravinsky, probably in connection with this passage, where a cloth harp cover was used to mute the tuba.) All of this is unimportant, however, because overall we heard an exciting, precise, and attentive, performance which conveyed a deep understanding of the music. I’ve written about Firebird [HERE], and 112 years after the premiere, we are still learning from its original sound and sensibility — especially in the form of the complete ballet. Stravinsky wrote in 1962: “The Firebird has been a mainstay in my life as a conductor. My conducting debut occurred with it, the complete ballet, in 1915…and since then I have performed it nearly a thousand times, though ten thousand would not erase the memory of the terror I suffered that first time.” That is probably as it should be. Though Firebird be a terrifying piece to play and conduct, this great traversal drove the audience to its feet in cheers.

Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert on the music of Alban Berg, Debussy, and other early 20th-century composers. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (Ph.D., 1967), he has published on many music subjects, and edited the revised fourth (1978) and fifth (1987) editions of Harmony by his teacher Walter Piston.


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

  1. The descriptions of the music in this review are very instructive. The pellucid style makes it an easy read. The generous but measured appreciation of the performance makes me sorry to have missed it. Thank you, Mark.

    Comment by John Kirsch — February 6, 2022 at 10:05 pm

  2. Thank you for the thoughtful review!

    Could you please use our correct name in the title – we are Lexington Symphony, LS (not Lexington Symphony Orchestra, LSO… LSO is actually the Longwood Symphony Orchestra, among others!)

    Lexington Symphony violinist and Board Member

    Comment by Barbara Hughey — February 7, 2022 at 8:00 pm

  3. Thanks, BH. We are all editors on this site.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — February 7, 2022 at 10:21 pm

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