IN: Reviews

Gilbert Assembled an Unusual Program

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Garrick Ohlsson, Justin Dello Joio, Alan Gilbert (Hilary Scott photo)

Alan Gilbert, in his 20th-anniversary appearance with the BSO, whom I wrote about [HERE] in 2009, likes to assemble unusual programs. This time he brought to Boston a significant discovery, hidden away for so many years: the Serenade in F Major, op. 31, by Wilhelm Stenhammar, composed 1909-14. Various sources hail Stenhammar (1871-1927) as Sweden’s slightly younger answer to Finland’s Sibelius, indeed a post-Wagnerian late Romantic like the Czech Josef Suk, whose work this one reminded me of. Its five movements last a little more than half an hour. The Overtura begins mostly with brightly hurrying and even frantic upper strings, elegantly answered with a quartet of solo cellos. Winds have a lesser, mostly punctuating role here, which is probably why the Canzonetta second movement brought forth more prominent wind sound, beginning with a fine cantilena for clarinet in warm dialogue with cellos. This movement was really a waltz, full of rubato and northern melody such as Tchaikovsky would have admired. The scherzo that followed, marked Presto, was a wild ride, furiously developed with bright horns, and many rapid four-bar groups coalescing into a march supported by an emotional snare drum. The end of this long scherzo settled on a low E pedal in the strings that rose octave by octave into the high register and gently led into the Notturno fourth movement, a chorale in A minor with an eloquent oboe solo, followed by paired flutes, oboes and clarinets over unison strings. The finale begins with a noticeable Russian sixth (see my note about this characteristic northern gesture HERE, and a sunrise horn call, rapidly changing to galloping triplets with dotted rhythm, but this soon became a spaciously modulating texture, a well-controlled post-Brahmsian chromatic language refreshingly enriched with Debussyan ninths. Eventually the sunrise became a quiet sunset, and the entire movement ended in a clear, high pianissimo F major, not surprising but satisfying. The relatively high tessitura of most of this handsome work’s string texture validated it as a genuine serenade, not as a symphony nor even a sinfonietta. Perhaps because one of Alan Gilbert’s regular conducting homes is The Royal Opera in Stockholm, this little-known Swedish masterpiece reached Tangelwood in 2021 and Symphony Hall this weekend. (On his next visit he should bring some more Stenhammar, and even a symphony by a great Swedish predecessor, Franz Berwald, 1796-1868.)

Justin Dello Joio’s 20-minute-long Piano Concerto Oceans Apart received its long-delayed premiere in this series; composed as a Boston Symphony co-commission for Garrick Ohlsson, the work was intended for a premiere several years ago but was not completed in time. One reason for the delay may have been the very large orchestra required, with woodwinds by threes, brass with four different kinds of mutes, multiple divided strings, and a huge percussion department. The composer, wearing a scarf around his shoulders, came to the stage before the performance to explain the personal and political significance of the title: people of today moving more and more away from each other. This explanation helped me understand why the new work didn’t sound at all like La mer, despite complex Debussian orchestral textures in rapid divided string figurations of indefinite notes constantly in senza misura, the propensity of individual players starting and stopping irregulary, and the abundance of regularized arpeggios in bunched woodwinds. The orchestra was constantly fighting with itself with accents in shouts, growls, wails, and sffz barks, and glissing strings that often sounded like an Onde Martenot; occasionally a perceptible beat pattern emerged with a definite sense of forward motion. The piano part took on more regularity of patterns, alternating between broken-chord groups moving by chromatic scale up and down the keyboard à la Liszt, and big-fisted chords in the Tchaikovsky 19th-century grand manner concerto style. In some sensitive moments, a definite harmonic language emerged, though often blurred by the overall sound: prominent tritones with octave doubling at the beginning and returning similarly near the end; Ravel’s beloved inverted-ninth sonority (imagine B flat-C sharp-E-A in close position), suggesting jazz keyboard style; and a haunting, poignant appearance of pure triads in a quiet piano cadenza. I enjoyed watching one trombonist constantly juggling mutes: straight mute, Harmon B – Aluminum Wow Wow mute, cup mute, and rubber plunger (I looked for a bucket mute but didn’t see one). With a few exceptions, in the quietest passages, I couldn’t hear much of the elaborate percussion, except for the rainstick, bell tree, and small gong imitating a thunder sheet, which proved eerily effective. One had a hard time comprehending Oceans Apart as a concerto in the sense of joint action in cooperative dialogue. In the original Latin sense concertare translates to struggle, “to contend with zealously.” One could digest it, though, as oceanic separation of struggles. Garrick Ohlsson, one of the best pianists alive, grasped this nettle—gloves-off—with assertive confidence and even delight. Gilbert assembled everything with precision.

The concert had begun with a brisk, five-minute, cheerful, post-Impressionist sendoff. Lili Boulanger’s D’un matin de printemps, includes adumbrations of Ravel’s harmony of the late 1920s even though Lili Boulanger, a near-genius and the first woman ever to win the Premier Prix de Rome in composition, died in 1918 at age 25. Lili’s older sister Nadia Boulanger dedicated much of her long life to propagating Lili’s work. Full disclosure: I am president of the Lili Boulanger Memorial Fund, Inc., established by Nadia, and which will welcome contributions in support of young composers and performers (the Boston Symphony still includes one fine musician who benefited some years back).

Antonin Dvořák’s Carnival Overture, op. 92, composed in 1891, completed the program. This familiar burst of joyful A major (same key as Berlioz’s Roman Carnival, but no other similarities) is more popular than the later symphonic poems, and the Boston Symphony first played it in 1895. Gilbert’s energetic drive got the Friday afternoon codgers to cheering.

Click HERE for a related interview.

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.

8 Comments »

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

  1. I suppose most of us can name a piece of music that we hope to hear “live” some day. For me, the Serenade by Stenhammar was something I never expected to hear, although I have loved the piece for many decades after first hearing a recording conducted by Kubelik.

    I agree with Mr. DeVoto that it is a masterpiece, but one that doesn’t grab the listener on first hearing. Stenhammar doesn’t indulge in spectacular or sensational effects. I needed a few hearings before I began to appreciate its beauties. The performance on Friday was admirable, more “settled” than the broadcast performance from Tanglewood in 2021. Maestro Gilbert clearly loves this work, and the orchestra was with him.

    Stenhammar’s Second Symphony is also a fine piece that is worth bringing to Boston. And,since the BSO seems to be getting into the habit of ending concerts with short, spectacular pieces (Roumanian Rhapsody, Carnival Overture, Leonore Number 3), perhaps Maestro Gilbert could be persuaded to program another famous Swedish work, Midsommarvaka by Hugo Alfvén.

    By the way, I’ve just listened to the Saturday broadcast, and the audience reacted enthusiastically to the Serenade, whereas the Friday audience’s reaction seemed to be “meh” (although a few people roused themselves from their torpor and shouted the obligatory “WOO” after the Carnival Overture.) I don’t usually attend Friday concerts. Is this typical?

    Comment by George Hungerford — January 14, 2023 at 9:50 pm

  2. As always, a wonderful insightful review by Mark DeVoto!
    Mr. Hungerford, you are correct that at least one of us came primarily for the Stenhammar.
    And I also concur that the Stenhammar 2nd Symphony is a piece that should’ve been heard in Boston decades ago, the last movement fugue alone puts the work on my select list of “undiscovered masterpieces”. There is a fabulous 1983 concert recording of it with Neeme Jarvi and the Gothenburg Symphony on BIS. I hope and trust Mark DeVoto gets a chance to listen to it, he won’t be disappointed!

    I thought that the Dello Joio was the first instance of father then son Piano Concerto commissions. Not quite. Norman Dello Joio’s Fantasy and Variations for Piano and Orchestra was commissioned by Baldwin Piano and premiered in Cincinnati. The work had its Boston premiere and first recording by Lorin Hollander, Leinsdorf and the BSO in February 1963. That the son had a piano concerto premiere almost exactly 60 years later would’ve been a pretty interesting coincidence.

    And I am fascinated that the Alven was mentioned. The piece is a bit too long for an overture-length closer (14 minutes maybe?). It is one of those finely crafted pieces that sadly, doesn’t have a home these days, as it is far too light for current BSO programs, but it would have been ideal for a Pops program in Fiedler’s day. Amazingly, Fiedler never conducted it, and there are only two performances listed in the BSO’s database, Henry, a 1923 rendition by Fiedler’s predecessor Agide Jacchia, and a 1969 performance by Skitch Henderson. I would imagine a lot of people would turn their nose up at it, but I would prefer hearing it to the Enescu Roumanian Rhapsody. The nocturne-like middle section of the Alven is gorgeous.

    Comment by Brian Bell — January 15, 2023 at 9:43 am

  3. I first knew the Alfvén as “Swedish Rhapsody” by Percy Faith and his orchestra, a drastically shortened and rewritten jukebox version dating from 1953. It’s a nice piece of basic boom-chick still. I’m intrigued by the suggestion of an *overture* as the concluding splash item of a heavy concert. Leonore 3 is fairly long for that job, likewise Roman Carnival, but not out of line. But I’d happily suggest Chabrier’s Overture to Gwendoline, which I don’t know if the BSO has ever tried; it is as orchestrally brilliant as anyone could ask for. (Listen to Paul Paray’s old recording with the Detroit.)

    Comment by Mark DeVoto — January 15, 2023 at 4:02 pm

  4. Mark, didn’t the last BSO program end with Leonore Number 3? As for the Alfvén Rhapsody, Ormandy made a beautiful recording of the complete work in Philadelphia. (Yes, the middle section is gorgeous, as Brian Bell states above, and the whole piece is actually shorter than the Leonore).

    Your suggestion of the Gwendoline Overture is a good one. I once heard Leinsdorf end a serious concert with Chabrier’s España Rhapsody, which was great to hear “live”. My favorite example of a musical dessert at the end of a heavy meal of a concert: Rozhdestvensky conducting the Ives Fourth, a Shostakovich piano concerto, and then the Light Cavalry Overture.

    Comment by George Hungerford — January 15, 2023 at 6:12 pm

  5. Although I am not all that enthusiastic about many of the new 21st Century music showcased recently by the BSO, I do accept and fully understand that going forward it certainly has its place in the evolution of the 21st century orchestral repertoire. I have attended many BSO concerts over the past almost 20 years and other than Elliot Carter , I’ve yet to hear very few 20th Century American composers. Why they have been so neglected is quite puzzling . I wish they would put more effort in programming various compositions from Ives, Bloch, Piston, Gould, Hanson, Sessions, V.Thomson, Harris. Copland, Barber, Hovhaness, Erb, Menin, Barber, MacDowell , Bernstein, Hindemith , Still et al. I apologize if I have left anyone out and yes, I am aware that the BSO is performing Lutoslawski’s Concerto for Orchestra this week. Although not my favorite , the folk music component makes it a very interesting composition, so let’s hope this trend continues.

    Comment by David Grahling — January 18, 2023 at 11:36 am

  6. I agree with Mr. Grahling. The treatment of 20th century American composers is scandalous. One could add many more to the list, e.g., William Schuman and Walter Piston.

    By the way, was anyone else surprised to read in last week’s program note on Stenhammar that Grieg’s “Morning Mood” and Nielsen’s “Helios Overture” are “paeans to the Nordic sun”? I should think that the guest musicologist would know that Grieg was thinking of the Moroccan desert, and that Nielsen was thinking of the sun over the Aegean Sea. Perhaps Robert Kirzinger is reluctant to edit a program note written by someone else.

    Comment by George Hungerford — January 18, 2023 at 5:59 pm

  7. How many of BMInt’s readers recall the quirky short B&W film from 1952 entitled “The Stranger Left No Card” that had a bowdlerized version of the Alfvén Midsommarvaka as its musical soundtrack, Muir Mathieson conducting? It’s well worth seeking out. It made a big impression on me at the time, and I remember it to this day. Was it shown on the late-lamented “Omnibus?” I agree that Ormandy’s recording of the original score is wonderful.

    Comment by John W.Ehrlich — January 20, 2023 at 9:47 pm

  8. On can see “The Stranger Left No Card” in a fuzzy video with decent sound here:

    https://vimeo.com/71276534

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — January 21, 2023 at 12:12 am

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