Debussy’s Prélude à l’Après-midi d’un faune, an orchestral “impression” inspired by Mallarmé’s humidly inscrutable poem about memory, is one of those historic focal points after which the evolving course of music never sounded the same. I have already written about it analytically in these pages [HERE]. A good performance, such as yesterday’s, will help convey how Debussy worked on Faune for an entire year, even though it is only 110 bars and nine-minutes long, and why he later made many changes of dynamics, and why, at its premiere, it had to be repeated. I can also tell you that it’s not difficult to play (solo flute memorably excepted) but it poses considerable challenges for the baton. (See Frederik Prausnitz’s careful directions and indications, in Elliott W. Galkin, A History of Orchestral Conducting in Theory and Practice, Pendragon Press, 1988, pp. 792-822.) I have conducted the three works on this well-chosen program.
Tchaikovsky’s several works in the concerto genre have always been among his most popular, even though in none of them does he seem as though he felt really comfortable writing in a virtuoso manner. The Variations on a Rococo Theme for cello and orchestra, op. 33 (1876), are a particular instance; the version most often heard was extensively rewritten and dolled up by the German cellist Wilhelm Fitzenhagen, Tchaikovsky’s dubious colleague who played the premiere. (An irked Tchaikovsky eventually accepted the revisions, though reluctantly.) Sunday’s soloist, Evan Kahn, made the most of the furioso solo, especially in the warmly contemplative D-minor variation. He dwelt too dramatically on the overblown cadenzas, but his tone sounded firm and fair, and he managed the excessive amount of high register (Tchaikovsky’s weakness) with confidence.
Beethoven’s First Symphony has been called the best symphony that Haydn never wrote, and we can all understand why that appellation is just. (Put it in perspective of the age: Beethoven was two years older when he wrote his first symphony than Schubert was when he wrote his last and greatest symphony.) But Beethoven’s no. 2 in D Major, op. 36, composed 1802, creates a radiant new world of its own. You can identify Haydn and Mozart as forebears, but the Second is entirely Beethoven, and it is joyful, ebullient, witty, optimistic even in a time of personal despair —as Beethoven acknowledged that he was progressively and irretrievably losing his hearing. It reveals amazing boldness of form: the very long Adagio molto introduction and the virtuosic Allegro con brio that follows; the exquisitely lyrical slow movement couched in a dramatic sonata; a Scherzo full of orchestral chuckles; and a finale beginning with a melody that would have choked Mozart.
The Boston Festival Orchestra encompasses early-Romantic size: 11-10-10-8-3 strings and standard winds, though not all were there yesterday. Conductor Alyssa Wang co-founded the ensemble that includes many recent graduates of NEC and other local places with clarinetist Nicholas Brown. Cheers testified to the enthusiastic support of coevals and friends, and it resounded with full justice even at a lightly attended Jordan Hall. This summer orchestra deserves, and will surely get, further attention from the Boston’s older symphonic cohort. Last year BFO filled the much-smaller Calderwood Hall three times.
From where my comps placed me, upstairs at the extreme left, very close to the stage, the woodwinds often sounded too loud; the strings seemed to send their tone downstairs. The swells at m. 19 of Debussy’s Faune came across too literally f (this is really the composer’s fault), but blend in the central ff (m. 70) effectively brought out the cross-rhythms, and this performance seemed well-balanced overall. I felt this even in the en dehors passages (mm. 46-47) where Debussy, as was his habit, liked to introduce important new thematic material by keeping it in the background, not exactly hidden. And Allison Parramore’s flute solos came across quite superbly.
Balance between soloist and orchestra seemed more of a problem in the Tchaikovsky. Especially in the high-register passages — Tchaikovsky/Fitzenhagen wrote to excess — it was hard to hear the cello, submerged by the orchestra. But the expressive slower variations made up for these in tone.
I would fault the Beethoven Symphony performance only for its aggressiveness — often too loud and, especially in the finale, too fast. Part of this, I think, comes from the in-your-face conservatory training that seems to be the rule these days; you can see it, and hear it, in the gyrations of string-quartet playing, and it carries over into the orchestra. The results are not necessarily unhappy, and I don’t expect that everyone agrees with this opinion. But I think that a really mature classical orchestral sound should dial back from fff to a strong ff attack in many instances, which tells you that it’s sometimes more difficult to play at a full round f than at what too often sounds like a mezzo-fortissimo. At mm. 334-335 in the finale of the Beethoven there’s a full-orchestra ff on a half cadence in D major, with fermata. This is followed by a p half cadence in B minor. You want to have a fraction of a second for the sound to die away (normally indicated with ‘) so as to hear the contrast, but the timpani roll echoed too long. And at mm. 372-373 there’s a sudden ff, one of my favorite instances of a “devastating augmented sixth chord” (Beethoven wrote A flat in the bass but it should be G sharp). No matter how witty the overflowing finale, one wants more time to sniff the flowers.
Alyssa Wang’s conducts with graceful and very precise but still developing technique. Her left hand mirrors the baton too much, needing to show more independence for cueing and especially for dynamic control. But she has her eyes on the orchestra the whole time. She conducts from miniature scores, which is much better than trying to conduct without a score, and hats off to that, because she gave abundant and proper attention to detail, with an economical beat.
The two remaining concerts in this series (July 24th and 31st at Jordan Hall) include a concerto gig for flutist Allison Parramore. Yesterday’s performance gave sparkling testimony to what this energetic, already polished, youthful group can do.