IN: Reviews

BSO Balances Old(er) and New

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Hakan Hardenberger (Hilary Scott photo)

Sunday afternoon’s the Tanglewood outing provided something of a surprise: Helen Grime’s Trumpet Concerto night—blue—sky in its US premiere. Co-commissioned by the Koussevitzky Music Foundation at the Library of Congress, the London Symphony Orchestra, and the Boston Symphony, it paired with the Third Symphony of Sergei Rachmaninoff, whose late-in-the-day lush romanticism might be seen as a sop to conservative tastes. But the two works, despite considerable difference in the musical language of their respective composers, fit together surprisingly well, especially in the coloristic orchestral treatment of instrumental families in kaleidoscopic patterns of high energy.

To get the audience comfortably in their seats at the beginning, Andris Nelsons led a smooth orchestral version of Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise¸ with the first violins, en masse, singing the vocal part. (At the end, the conductor motioned for them to rise as one, like a single soloist, before granting the rest of the orchestra a bow.)

Helen Grime briefly pointed out some of the more trenchant musical effects. Then Nelsons began the half-hour single movement. Night—blue—sky is planned (not surprisingly) as an atmospheric piece, much of it expressed in dark colors with lower woodwinds, as in the very opening which sounds rather like the dark opening of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, without any hint of pastiche.

The role of the solo trumpet is both challenging and varied. Grime described Hakan Hardenberger as “the world’s greatest trumpeter,” one for whom many composers have created concertos. She knew that he could project anything she wrote for him. But in most concertos with an unusual solo instrument (other than one of the normal strings, for example) the composer eliminates from the orchestra all the examples of the solo instrument so as to allow the soloist to prevail in splendor. But here Grime retains the Boston Symphony’s complement of trumpets, treating them often as a gang opposing the soloist, often in stark opposition. When I commented about this feature after the performance and expressed astonishment at the balance of the solo trumpet against the group, her eyes went wide, and she said, “The BSO trumpets are fabulous!” Of course, the rest of the large orchestra was also very busy, often in family groups. The strings more often than not carried a quieter tone, more lyrical, expressing the composer’s fundamental view of “a garden at night… I was thinking of transformation, and of things being unsettled.” The woodwinds, which had suggested the unsettling mood of the very open, carried that effect forward in mixed chord shot kaleidoscopically into the maelstrom.

Andris Nelsons and composer Helen Grime (Hilary Scott photo)

Helen Grime has had regular performance of her music at Tanglewood since she was herself a Fellow in composition at the Tanglewood Music Center in 2008. Almost every year since then has seen another Grime piece, culminating in the newly commissioned work, which, it seems fair to say, is only another in a growing repertory that will appear in years to come.

The second half of the program consisted of just one work that, on the face of it, might seem ill-fitted to balance Helen Grime’s score: Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 3 in A minor, Opus 44. The Rachmaninoff works most often performed are early scores, like the Second Piano Concerto (1900-01) and the Second Symphony (1906-7), both redolent of the lush romanticism of Russian composers in the years before World War I and the Russian Revolution. And that is the musical language still more thoroughly connected to Rachmaninoff. But his Third Symphony (1935-6) not only came three full decades later but also appeared in a world in which the effects of war, economic collapse, and significant changes in his life rather changed Rachmaninoff’s approach to life and to composing (he did a lot less in the last twenty years of his life). The Symphony in A minor is performed far less frequently than the Second, and therefore a fresh hearing brings some surprise at how “modern” it is. This is not modernity in the sense of Stravinsky, to be sure, but it showed a marked pulling away from the Tchaikovskian plum-pudding sweetness of before.

Hearing the symphony in direct opposition to Helen Grime’s work, the novelty of Rachmaninoff’s orchestral scoring struck me—possibly for the first time. The woodwinds, for example, projected a mood of tossing chordal snowballs at one another, providing an activated texture behind the themes that still sounded essentially Rachmaninovian. The symphony is far more compact that the spacious Second (which runs well over an hour in an uncut performance), and it suggests a brilliance that Rachmaninoff came to late in life, rather different than before. With Andris Nelsons’s crisp direction that avoided any slackness that the late romantic Russians sometimes suggest, and the superbly precise playing of the Boston Symphony players, this relatively overlooked piece provided an excellent companion to the new work on the first half.

Steven Ledbetter is a freelance writer and lecturer on music. He got his BA from Pomona College and PhD from NYU in Musicology. He taught at Dartmouth College in the 1970s, then became program annotator at the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1979 to 1997.

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