Conductor Omer Meir Wellber made his Boston Symphony Orchestra debut in the subscription concerts which greeted the new year, featuring time-tested classics alongside new explorations. Yesterday afternoon Midori performed the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto with virtuosic flair; the second half featured Ellen Milch-Sheriff’s monodrama The Eternal Stranger with the poignant dramatic reading of actor Eli Danker, paired with the funeral march of Beethoven’s Eroica and his Leonore Overture No. 3.
The afternoon’s performance of the concerto turned out to be a great joy, bolstered by Midori’s exceptional musicianship, Wellber’s collaborative leadership, and the orchestra’s sensitive accompaniment.
The introductory tutti revealed an orchestra full of bright energy. Throughout the first movement, Midori found a variety of expressive voices, with smooth changes in affect between lyrical, tender melodies and playful, skipping rhythms. The orchestra supported her with strong rhythmic integrity, barring a couple passages where it took a moment to catch up with a rubato. Midori’s cadenza found both delicateness and decisive confidence, topped by graceful high harmonics. The re-entry of the orchestra afterwards sounded wonderful — an exquisite pianissimo, with the flute solo floating gently above the ensemble. The first movement finished with a fiery, spirited coda, which left the audience struggling to keep from expressing its excitement through applause.
The opening woodwind choir of the Canzonetta set an intimate, melancholy scene, though the oboe poked out of the texture, unsettling the blend slightly. Midori’s violin resonated plaintively, with the major section suggesting fond, gentle memories. The flute and clarinet solos gave especially expressive solos, and the orchestra produced some beautifully quiet moments. The orchestra transitioned to the Finale with vitality — raucous, yet not frantic. Midori matched its mood with a sprightly spiccato. Through the more folklike passages, she had a jolly, jaunty tone, seamlessly switching to more tender, dainty melodies. She played with style, flair, and almost even a sort of sass. The call-and-response figures between Midori and the orchestra seesawed with great fun, and the musicians finished the concerto together with vigorous fire.
It was a true pleasure to see Midori illuminate the hall and the new year with her violin and her glowing musical spirit. She excelled both in virtuosic passages of fast runs and double-stops, as well as caressing melodies of the utmost preciousness. Wellber and the ensemble musicians collaborated with Midori delightfully, giving her an orchestral stage upon which to stand and soar.
In the second half, The Eternal Stranger, a monodrama (a theatrical piece for one actor) by Israeli composer Ella Milch-Sheriff, preceded the funeral march of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony, and Beethoven’s Leonore Overture No. 3. Commissioned for Beethoven’s 250th anniversary, The Eternal Stranger depicts Beethoven as a stranger in a Middle East-influenced soundscape, with text from the poem “The Wandering of the Eternal Refugee and the Fight Against Despair” by Israeli author Joshua Sobol. It takes as inspiration a dream Beethoven had in 1821 in which he found himself traveling to far-off lands such as Syria, India, and Jerusalem. According to Wellber’s introduction, the piece considered themes “about freedom, about happiness, about human rights, about big and small choices.”
The piece began with high strings, centered around a high A, with extra notes adding dissonances, and bass melodies at the bottom. Throughout, melodies featured chromatic pitches and augmented-second jumps, suggesting Middle Eastern influences. Israeli actor Eli Danker provided the theatrical narration. Beginning within the orchestra, he moved around the stage throughout the monodrama, his body flowing and even sometimes dancing according to the mood of the text and music. At one point, the orchestra echoed the narrator’s text in whispers — a striking effect which unfortunately only happened in one passage. The music progressed through a series of different scenes — at once a haunting Viennese waltz, and at other times driving rhythmic grooves, with colorful percussion writing. A pressing sense of disorientation and alienation prevailed.
Danker impressively commanded the audience’s attention, his speech and movement achieving great presence and drama. In addition to speaking in English, he spoke several verses in Arabic, and he also played the darbuka, an Egyptian drum. A few words along the way got lost, especially when the full orchestra was playing. But Danker performed with a compelling sense of pathos and narrative. A memorable verse: “But as strong as my love is, from your hatred it saves me not.”
The Eternal Stranger ended on a B-flat, which sank down chromatically to the G that begins the funeral march of Beethoven’s Eroica. Danker walked off the stage, into the audience; he spoke one more line before retreating from the dramatic action. The funeral march proceeded with measured poise and genuine expression. The dirge-like passages progressed solemnly, while the major episode shone through the clouds. Wellber directed the orchestra with fine attention to dynamics and phrasing. The fugato passage suddenly quickened, a bit fast of a jump in tempo perhaps, but still with power and strength. Overall, the presentation of the funeral march took upon a very Romantic character: for example, the brass called out louder than expected, and the loud dynamics resounded with high intensity. Whether this would be appropriate for Beethoven is up to interpretation, but the performance certainly made a rousing impression.
The orchestra sewed together a transition to the next piece by splicing in the opening tutti G of the Leonore before the ending of the funeral march. Following the foreboding introduction, the orchestra found an animated pianissimo in the Allegro, with a gradual crescendo to a full C major fortissimo. Sometimes the rhythmic integrity of the offbeat passages between the strings and winds faltered; besides this, the orchestra played with confidence. The offstage trumpet solo resonated brilliantly from the back of the hall in the second balcony — clear, decisive, a herald of relief and triumph to come. The following flute solo shimmered with vivacity, although the strings covered the flute somewhat. The orchestra handled the transition to the Presto coda with precision, and the concert finished off in an exulting, celebratory C major.
With the second half of the concert, the BSO endeavored to extend the classical canon and the modern relevance of classical programming. To this end, the BSO chose to pair the music of Beethoven with a new Beethoven-inspired piece. The program identifies the Arabic verses in The Eternal Stranger as being of Syrian dialect and declares that this connects the piece to the Syrian refugee crisis. Thus the BSO meant to relate well-loved works of Beethoven to new music and current events.
However, the link between Beethoven and The Eternal Stranger seemed tenuous. The piece takes inspiration from Beethoven’s dream and quotes a canon that Beethoven heard in the dream and wrote down, and the text implies Beethoven as the protagonist. But without Wellber’s introduction and the program note, the connection is unclear. More importantly, it seems odd to identify Beethoven as a “stranger” in society in the same vein as refugees of war and civil unrest. Beethoven was a native-born German who lived in Bonn and Vienna. The concept of Beethoven having the experience of being a stranger in the Middle East is a fantasy — in fact, it literally happened only in a dream. Though his deafness created a degree of alienation between him and society, the estranging experience of disability does not equal the experience of diaspora. These concepts of disaffection and inability to communicate are compelling, but they needn’t have been tied to the figure of Beethoven.
Furthermore, the monodrama bordered on melodrama surrounded by the comparatively staid presentations of the Tchaikovsky and Beethoven. Danker’s performance made a strong impression, but the drama of the theatrical presentation seemed slightly out-of-place. The funeral march and the overture followed, but they didn’t respond strongly to the questions of estrangement and disorientation raised in the monodrama. And how did this all relate to the Tchaikovsky of the first half?
With all that said, the performers all showed excellent musical and dramatic expertise. Conductor Omer Meir Wellber made a commendable debut with the BSO. His attention to small details and inner voices, and his wide range of gestures, from tiny to huge, radiated through the sound of the orchestra. Sometimes his bouncing and dancing moves verged on distracting, but his motions always expressed honest musical intentions. The BSO’s calculated artistic risk on the second half of the program mostly paid off through the vibrant, moving drama of The Eternal Stranger. The BSO should keep exploring new directions, even if some hiccups occur along the way. Let us continue to enjoy the imaginative new horizons of Milch-Sheriff and many other contemporary voices.