Is it too much to assume that the picks for the March 3rd BSO subscription run might be viewed as a tribute to the flexibility of today’s concertgoer? This time we witnessed considerable musical extremes, as a questioning Ives, a seasoned self-destructive Berlioz, and new concerto from an agile Unsuk Chin vied for our attention. Audiences have already witnessed earlier Boston concerto premieres of John Williams and Victor Wooten with mixed feelings, yet once again were ready, when the venerated Boston Symphony Orchestra took to the stage at Symphony Hall.
With house lights dimmed to a golden hue, The Unanswered Question disclosed four flutes (instead of the usual mix of winds) onstage, strings backstage, the trumpet somewhere remote. Perhaps taking pages from the subdued Central Park in the Dark, BSO decolorized, minimalizing the prototypical 1908 Ives.
Violinist Leonidas Kavakos commanded attention and appreciation in the American premiere of the celebrated Korean-German composer Unsuk Chin’s Violin Concerto No. 2, Scherben der Stille (“Shards of Silence”). The BSO, Gewandhaus Orchester Leipzig, and the London Symphony Orchestra jointly commissioned it for the Greek violinist. Kavakos’s, lyricism, perpetual motion, muscular moves, extended techniques, and a host of demands, all hit expressive heights with a certain signature purity. Contrarily, the quasi-colormaps of Chin’s orchestral score remained grounded, immobilized in time and space. Chin’s music has been played across the world by some of the leading orchestras and soloists of our time, a critic calling hers a “vivacious imagination, ” yet mixed feelings may abide about this new piece, one of a number of concertos she has composed. More on Chin and the concert below.
In the closer, Nelsons pretty much took the Fantastique out of the Hector Berlioz leaving a Symphonie eloquently, almost classically fashioned by a swelled BSO, marred only by a brass heavy “March to the scaffold.” After the nearly vanishing (if not vaporous) Ives and the Chin concerto, BSO’s Berlioz felt like a homecoming.
In various interviews, Unsuk Chin speaks of an intellectual level always having to be present in her music. At the same time, she adds, there must be communication. Interestingly enough, that second concerto feels more accessible than the intellectualized first (which won the prestigious Grawemeyer Award in 2004). The influence of her Presbyterian minister father might be heard by some coming after the long opening cadenza—a hymnic nod. She spoke of surviving life growing up in Seoul listening to the school’s records of the masters which seems to tie in with the second concerto, whereas with Stravinsky being her first modern encounter, one might assume that her first concerto had its ties with that master.
Taken by Chin’s gift, Ligeti accepted her as a student in Hamburg, urging her to find herself. Clearly, she has. In London, George Benjamin’s interest in her music led to good reviews and she moved to Berlin before reunification where artists still could thrive. She worked at an electronic studio thinking more freely about abstract music and colors than of motifs. For this listener, her first violin concerto sought the abstract, percussive, and rarified orchestra; this second concerto saw less percussion and more orchestral engagement.
Chin also pursues the idea of artists going beyond their capabilities. You might wish to compare the first violin concerto’s conspicuous technical demands with the second’s expressiveness. With an interest in all music, including Korean and Chinese, she understands that “instruments are instruments…no borders.” Koreans not having the “dogmas” and “credos” of Germany, Chin states she can be free of those restraints. For this listener, cultural topographies of this newest concerto look toward the West, even surveilling Expressionism.