This week the BSO made history with a knock-your-socks-off world premiere of American composer Carlos Simon’s innovative Four Black Dances. Subscribers also heard Ernest Bloch’s early 20th-century musical narrative about King Solomon, Schelomo: Rhapsodie Hébraïque with the inspirational young cellist, Sheku Kanneh-Mason, and a rich take on Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony.
Washington-born and Atlanta-raised Simon warmly addressed the audience, noting the background for each dance, and his hope to convey disparate Black experiences with the depth and emotion of each. This stirring commission by the BSO, Music Director Andris Nelsons and the New Works Fund of the Massachusetts Cultural Council, focuses the centrality of dance as an expression of connection, ritual, celebration, and worship in Black culture. Certainly, this 14-minute work will have staying power, if it were just for the imaginative instrumentation, which includes a percussionist instrument list that takes lines to list (xylophone, vibraphone, marimba, tubular bells, piatti, suspended and splash cymbals, tam-tam, tambourines, triangle, wood blocks, shaker, large ship, large wood stick on wooden floorboard, toms, two snare drums, bass drum and hand claps).
The first dance, Ring Shout, marked “Soulfully” at the start, quickly imparts the sense of the ecstatic circle dance that first arose among enslaved Africans in the West Indies and the United States. In it, Simon envelops the listener with the transcendent celebratory religious ritual with foot stomping, clapping and shouting— through a percussionist’s large stick on a floorboard, right from the first measure (and intermittently throughout) and rapid woodwind and string passages, as well as handclaps and ethereal contributions of the harp and occasional brass growls. Improvisational moments transport the audience, overtaking with a pulsating liveliness. The second dance, Waltz, marked “with ebb and flow, rubato,” initially, depicts the 1930s arrival debutante balls in Black “upper-class” social circles, previously excluded in segregated America. This morsel with its tangy phrasing might be taken as commentary that these balls were a bittersweet reminder of the difficult paths for all Black families.
Tap! ― the third movement—is jubilant. Exuberant pulsations from the sound of tapping on the side rim of the snare drum alternating with jazz harmonies in the strings and brass in short choppy phrasing along with wood blocks, whip, piccolo and pizzicato. It evokes great tap dancers—the composer mentioned Cab Calloway in his introductory chat—and ended way too soon. The final movement, Holy Dance, emanates from Simon’s Pentacostal upbringing as the son of a pastor. As Simon writes in the Program Notes, “this movement calls on the vibrant, celebratory character… and “mimics the sound of the congregation ‘speaking in tongues,’ or murmuring in an unknown spiritual language” through semi-improvisation (aleatoric) moments. Holy Dance, marked “mysteriously” at its pianissimo beginning, encompasses the full range of sound and wonder, ending in fortissimo. I can’t wait to hear it again!
The ascendant cellist Kanneh-Mason then entranced the audience with his interpretation of Bloch’s 1915-1916 Schelomo, in which the composer casts the cello as King Solomon, depicting texts from Ecclesiastes, in this pessimistic, intense, yet spellbinding work. Schelomo starts and ends with a low note, and overall, underscores the multifaceted challenges faced. Kanneh-Mason seemed entranced; he dug into the score with intensity and in turn, entranced the hall. His dynamic range, deep tone and expressive demeanor roused the hall. In response, the cellist played his own interpretation of the Welsh song, “Myfanwy,” which he has arranged (and recorded) for solo cello.
The choice of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, Opus 92, in A major as the closer seems a nod to Simon, whose grandmother fostered his budding childhood interest in classical music through the gift of a CD that included the Seventh’s Allegretto. The audience did not decamp at intermission and was rewarded by a nuanced and broad rendering of this iconic work, a staple of the BSO since its first performance here in 1882. The first movement’s Poco sostenuto introduction led well to the expected rollicking Vivace, with the orchestra looking engaged and happy. The stately and downcast second movement Allegretto provided intensity, and the third, Presto—Assai meno presto, built momento followed. In the final Allegro con brio, the violins and horns made much of an ecstatic opportunity.
The evening brought a hat trick of standing ovations, signifying that the BSO is succeeding in its appeal to young, more diverse audiences by introducing new works and featuring important young composers and artists and pairing these meaningfully with older works. Bravo, BSO!
6 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]
We attended Thursday night’s concert. The new Carlos Simon work was enjoyable to hear, and congratulations are due to the composer. I thought the first of the four dances, Ring Shout, was the best of the bunch. The whole work lasted 14 minutes, and it passed pleasantly. Yet I’d be surprised if there are additional depths to the work that become apparent with additional exposure. The Bloch work was considerably less pleasurable to hear. In most though not all cases, there are usually good reasons why works don’t become part of the standard repertory. Sheku Kanneh-Mason played Shelomo for all it was worth and did an admirable job, and it would be wonderful to hear him again in Boston. As for the piece itself, it should be penciled in for its next performance not any earlier than 2073, which is roughly the same length of time since it was last heard from in Boston.
The Beethoven 7th overall was a less successful performance than Nelsons’ previous performance of the work that I heard (which were surpassed by memorable performances in recent years from Bernard Haitink and Herbert Blomstedt). The overall performance got better as it went on, with an absolutely sensational fourth movement that highlighted the orchestral star of the evening (discussed ahead).
The first movement did not come across well – it never took off. Part of that might have been the leisurely tempo, but it went deeper than that. Like much of the first half of the symphony on Thursday night, it felt like we were seeing the sausage get made rather than actually enjoying the sausage. While Nelsons did highlight some inner voices in the music, did this help or hurt? It felt a bit too detailed at the expense of the whole, and for this listener, it didn’t work. I liked the stately tempo of the 2nd movement, but again, it didn’t cohere and the momentum didn’t emerge over the entire movement, only for periods of time (albeit longer periods of time than the 1st movement). The 3rd movement was better still and there were no interpretive disruptions until the trio, which halted the momentum.
The 4th movement – well, wow! It’s a shame the momentum of the performance didn’t really carry over into the 4th movement as it should, but the orchestra made up for it. The basic speed was on the fast side, and it worked. And the orchestral star of the evening emerged: timpanist Timothy Genis. His unusually muscular performance of the timpani in the 4th movement gave the movement structure, energy, and impetus. It was stunning to hear, and incredibly welcome given Mr. Genis’ general propensity for elegance and refinement in his playing, sometimes at the expense of a more visceral approach which would be welcome. Nothing was held back though on Thursday, and he stole the show. Bravo!
Comment by Mogulmeister — February 11, 2023 at 12:36 pm
Carlos Simon’s orchestration was masterful, using all the resources of the symphony orchestra — truly a set of Symphonic Dances.
Which made me think of Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances, which I’ll be hearing this coming Thursday. It would have been interesting for the BSO to put the Rachmaninoff on this program, moving the Beethoven to share the program with the Prokofiev Classical Symphony on February 16 through 18.
And speaking of Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances, you have a choice on Saturday evening to hear them at Symphony Hall, or over at Jordan Hall played by the New England Philharmonic, conducted by Tianhui Ng.
Comment by Mark Lutton — February 11, 2023 at 6:56 pm
Four Black Dances is scheduled to be played at Tanglewood this summer. I can also imagine it being played frequently by the Pops.
Comment by Jim Doherty — February 12, 2023 at 12:03 pm
Omg! It was amazing 🤩 Sheku Kanneh-Mason will forever burned into my memory. What a legend! An extraordinary person. The Gen X women sitting next to me saw him on NPR’s tiny desk and came to see him for their Valentine’s celebration. My husband and I are millennials. We came for Beethoven, but feel so lucky it was way more magical than the Beethoven we already know so well. Bravo 👏👏💓💓
Comment by Allie Durak — February 13, 2023 at 12:22 pm
I thought the Four Black Dances was pretty banal. Are listeners so relieved to hear a contemporary piece that is tuneful and lacks dissonance that this kind of work attracts plaudits? Sheku, as he should be known if he wishes to become better known, was superb, both his playing and his podium charisma. He could become one of the future faces of classical music. And at least on Friday afternoon the Beethoven was outstanding.
Comment by Rob — February 15, 2023 at 10:06 am
Mogulmeister It had indeed been a long time since the Boston Symphony performed Schelomo in Boston. However, it was performed in Boston in 2018 (less than five years ago) by another local orchestra,the NEC Philharmonia, with cellist Laurence Lesser. Mark Lutton I found it amazing that the New England Philharmonic would schedule a performance of Symphonic Dances one block away simultaneously with the Boston Symphony. The Boston Symphony reveals it’s season schedule many months in advance. The New England Philharmonic has a new conductor. Was this concert planned before the Boston Symphony schedule was known? If not,the New England Philharmonic is certainly showing a lot of chutzpah. If so, why didn’t they change their program when the Boston Symphony schedule was announced? There has to be an overlap between their audiences. I would expect this situation to drastically reduce attendance for the New England Philharmonic concert.
Comment by Bennett — February 17, 2023 at 12:43 am
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