IN: Reviews

Germanic Con Forza


Coriolan anyone? Opening of Unsuk Chin’s score.

One didn’t have to read the program book essay to figure out that Unsuk Chin’s five-minute “silly symphony” subito con forza (suddenly with power) amalgamated some of Beethoven’s heavy hits into her own electrically charged maximalism. Did these very active, loud-soft, slow-fast and occasionally deep riffs come to praise Beethoven, parody him, or bury him? The Korean-born, Berlin-based composer’s spiky but flowing tribute “On the occasion of the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth” keeps the large orchestra quite active, especially the 2 percussionists who need to master: vibraphone, crotales, triangle, small and large cymbals, 2 gongs, tam-tam, tambourine, snare drum; II. xylophone, marimba, tubular bells, cymbal, tam-tam, whip, guiro, tambourine, 3 snare drums [small, medium, large]). Chin also tasks a pianist with some vivid busywork of arpeggios, cluster chords, and fake Alberti basses. The score is quite interesting to view. It’s sforzando city, with lots of alternations of tuttis with single and paired instruments, and with tremolos and woggles galore. Altogether we took immense pleasure in this intersection and distillation of modernism with Titanism.

We first encountered the now fully risen star pianist Eric Lu from his concerts for the Foundation for Chinese Performing Arts, and at the Harvard Musical Association. Since then the Boston-Berlin artist took First Prize at the Leeds International Piano Competition in 2018, and has become a exclusive Warner Classics recording artist among his many honors. He once again revealed a poetic touch in his powerful and fluent interpretation of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor, K. 466. The dramatic, minor-key concerto made a perfect BSO debut vehicle for Lu, allowing him to display speed, accuracy, poetry, and originality over a tremendous dynamic and emotional range. In this he was skillfully abetted by BSO Assistant Conductor Earl Lee in his debut here. The Korean-born maestro has led several important orchestras across the world, and as a Curtis-trained cellist has done notable work as a chamber musician. He also holds degrees in conducting from Manhattan School of Music and the New England Conservatory.

Lee drew sonorous tones — clear but never notey — from the 40 strings with paired winds and brass. He kindled the introduction into enough fiery drama to serve as an opera overture; one was expecting the arrival of the Commendatore. Then instead, the piano entered as if bathing in moonlight. Scales and snarls asked riddles, the piano usually took the pious role and the orchestra a secular one…producing a polite, never-quite-compelling diabolical. Lu’s well-gauged legato and exemplary pedaling gave every trill and Alberti clarity as well as meaning; his work registered as energized and thoughtful throughout. The band gave him great support and the wind solos glistened. The cadenza in the first movement comes as much from Beethoven’s world as Mozart’s, but strains of Schubert also wafted. The fast and furious final eruption of scales from bottom to top and back and the machine-gunned double trills. brought back the band.

The Romance slow movement took on a more Viennese elegance with ravishing pianissimos and learned conversation between piano and orchestra. Then a dark shade of menace disturbed the drawing room…but only briefly… before returning to more conventional first theme. Lee colored, shaped, and balanced with warm authority. The dreamy final notes vanished into the most rarefied air.

Then Lu began the rondo Allegro assai like a passing bullet train, with the orchestra accepting the challenge for combined speed and sparkle. The continuing call and answer discoursed between piano and orchestra. After pleasant debates about modulation, Beethoven returned to referee a cadenza in which Lu seemed to revel in the master’s departures to distant places. Then the oboe (the princely Mark McEwan) and the other winds pointed the orchestra to more courtly realms, to welcome the sunny close.

Lu rewarded the ovation with epically poignant piano poetry, “The Poet Speaks,” from Schumann’s Kinderszenen. One could hear the two-minute span as an old man’s nostalgia for an imagined childhood or as a pianist’s management of rests, lounging over fermatas. and taking impressive control of quiet dynamics. Lu observed all the neurotic stops and starts in a still small voice that compelled our adherence. He cast his searching light into a deep, dark, pool. And was he anticipating the third movement of the forthcoming Schumann symphony when he programmed this glorious miniature?

Earl Lee and Eric Lu (Winslow Townson, photo)

Along with Mark DeVoto’s BMInt account [HERE], John Daverio’s compellingly readable essay [the full 3307 words are HERE] on Schumann’s Second Symphony convincingly makes the connections with Schubert and Mendelssohn while telling of Schumann’s signal advances in symphonic architecture. Daviero’s last paragraph is very much worth excerpting.

Generally speaking, symphonic architecture tends toward one of two poles: the highly articulated designs of Haydn and Mozart; and the rhapsodic, continuously evolving forms of Liszt and Richard Strauss. Schumann’s Second Symphony lies squarely between these extremes, spinning out a web of ideas whose musical potential is not fully realized within the confines of a single movement. The initial motto in the brass (whose interval of a rising perfect fifth has been linked by some listeners to the opening of Haydn’s London Symphony, No. 104) puts in an unexpected appearance at the conclusion of the scherzo, and comes in for spectacular treatment in the closing phase of the last movement. Similarly, the plaintive Adagio theme is swept up in the propulsive march rhythms of the first part of the finale. In a surprising turn of events, Schumann then transforms the march music into a gentler, more lyrical idea that he proceeds to combine with the first movement’s brass chorale. The expressive aim of this contrapuntal tour de force is unmistakable: in fusing “secular” song and “sacred” chorale melody, Schumann demonstrated how it might be possible to transcend both spheres, the mundane and the religious, through the medium of the symphony orchestra. Therefore, the message of the symphony is an eminently “modern” one, and indeed, it was not lost on later composers as diverse in stylistic orientation as Bruckner, Dvořák, and Tchaikovsky. While deeply rooted in the musical past, Schumann’s Second Symphony pointed confidently toward the future.

Beginning with the noble brass chorale, Lee pressed urgently forward, in an assured traversal. His attention to balance and insistence on revelation of details, made of Schumann’s orchestrational tar something more like agreeable treacle, diluted with enough heat to maintain the flow. The flowing Scherzo movement streamed with brio, becoming a grand procession. With all smiling, luscious ritards and accelerandos passed with about as much delicacy as anyone could be expected to muster in the BACH motif exuberance. After the upper strings and then the oboe awakened the elegiac Adagio espressivo with pathos, horn calls evoked Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream before a stately fugato ensued. Despite the beauty of the theme, this movement, with violas in three parts at the beginning and violins at the ends of their fingerboards just before the fugato, sometimes begged for the clarity of a string quartet.

Quicksilver upper strings announced that something important was pending in the Allegro molto vivace finale. We were borne along triumphantly and powerfully, but Lee protected us from extremities. The oboe began the paean to the distant love which ends in quiet repose. Lee then whipped up a coda which triumphantly brought us back to where we started―a great warm place in the evergreen German symphonic canon. And so said the well-sated Maundy Thursday/Second Seder crowd.

Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer


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

  1. I was impressed by Earl Lee’s conducting. I can’t think of another concert from a BSO assistant conductor that was so well done overall. I liked Lee’s conception of the Schumann 2nd Symphony. It worked – and I think this symphony is not an easy one to pull off successfully. Indeed, I thought Lee’s performance was better than ones we’ve heard in Boston over the years from some familiar conductors who’ve led the BSO in it, with the exception of Christoph von Dohnanyi’s outstanding performance which still rings in my ears. If Lee weighted the string sound overall more than I might have preferred, still it was a successful performance and showed musicality. Just as importantly, the BSO played for him and seemed very responsive to what he wanted – which has not always been the case with some other assistant conductors’ concerts (Sean Newhouse’s performance of Sibelius Symphony #2 quickly comes to mind). I left the concert wanting to hear more from Earl Lee. And I hope we do.

    Comment by Mogulmeister — April 7, 2023 at 9:03 pm

  2. In subito con forza, note that the Violins I have exactly one-eighth of a second after the opening triple stop to get their mutes on. (There’s a comparably awkward moment at the very end of Satie’s Choses vues à droite et à gauche for violin and piano.) In the example, it would probably take at least three bars’ time to place the mute, but it doesn’t essentially matter, because it’s marked ppp while the percussion and piano are flailing away top-register like the beginning of Turangalîla and will drown out any fumbling in the violins.

    Comment by Mark DeVoto — April 8, 2023 at 11:32 am

  3. I personally did not experience immense pleasure upon listening to Chin’s ” silly symphony”. Did it move me? No, it did not. Sonically there may have been some interesting moments, but the above review is in my opinion a bit ” sugar coated”. Be that as it may, if this is the direction that the 21st Century Music continues taking then I believe the future of Symphony Orchestras may be in serious jeopardy. Low attendance has been an ongoing issue not only here but elsewhere as well and has been for at least the last decade and unfortunately a trend that will more than likely continue. Even though the concerto repertoire may be somewhat repetitive, I always enjoy hearing different interpretations from the various talented soloists engaged by the BSO. The Schumann symphonies are always enjoyable as well. However, I continue to find it quite disappointing and perplexing that the BSO doesn’t perform the plethora of great orchestral music from many other great 19th and 20th Century European and American composers. So much of the composers and their music from that time period is overlooked and rarely, if ever, performed. It makes no sense. The BSO really needs to re-evaluate and enhance their programing. Just recently I overheard a patron exclaim that if “I hear anymore Shostakovich I’m going to scream!! Enough said.

    Comment by David M Grahling — April 12, 2023 at 1:26 pm

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