This weekend’s two BSO concerts at Symphony Hall were party time for the orchestra. It’s not quite the end of the season — that will come next weekend, in a somber program that pairs Britten’s Violin Concerto with Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 13 (Babi Yar). But Ravel’s effervescent, champagne-cork-popping Piano Concerto in G and Igor Stravinsky’s colorful ballet score Petrushka offer many solo opportunities, and, first desk or not, the BSO players delivered. That was the icing on a cake that had Seong-Jin Cho, the first-prize winner at the 2015 Chopin International Competition in Warsaw, as soloist for the Ravel and music director Andris Nelsons on the podium.
First up, however, was Caroline Shaw’s Punctum. Shaw, who at 30 became the youngest-ever recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Music, wrote it for her own Franklin String Quartet in 2009. She revised it for the Brentano String Quartet in 2013 and then, on commission from the BSO, created a string-orchestra version that Nelsons and the orchestra premiered last July at Tanglewood. Punctum made its Symphony Hall debut this past November on a program with Mozart and Richard Strauss that the BSO presented once, so Saturday marked just its third outing.
Shaw is hardly a stranger to Boston. She wrote Music in Common Time for Roomful of Teeth and A Far Cry. Her piano quartet Thousandth Orange was the score for Tiler Peck’s “Point of Departure,” which led off Boston Ballet’s “ChoreograpHER” presentation in March 2022. And Saturday at Somerville’s Arts at the Armory, Emmanuel Music performed her Limestone and Felt. In the BSO program note, Shaw describes Punctum as
…essentially an exercise in nostalgia, inspired by Roland Barthes’s description of the ‘unexpected’ in photographs and in particular by his extended description of the elusive ‘Winter Garden’ photo in his 1980 book “Camera Lucida.” Through modular sequences strung together out of context, the piece explores a way of saturating the palette with classicism while denying it form, and of disturbing the legibility of a harmonic progression in order to reinforce it later. One could also say Punctume is about the sensation and memory of a particular secondary dominant in Bach’s St. Matthew Passion.
That’s a lot to work into 10 minutes. Barthes explained that the ‘Winter Garden’ photo showed his recently deceased mother, Henriette, age five, standing next to her seven-year-old brother in a glassed-in conservatory. The photo is “elusive” because it doesn’t appear in “Camera Lucida,” or anywhere else; it’s a private memory that Barthes kept to himself, a point in time, now past, a reminder of human mortality. A “particular secondary dominant in Bach’s St. Matthew Passion” is also a point in time. I don’t know which secondary dominant Shaw had in mind, but the piece itself is a meditation on the hymn tune that Bach uses for the chorale “O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden,” among others.
Punctum begins as a series of pulses, points, starts and stops, as if it hadn’t yet been assembled. There’s the sense, as in Thousandth Orange, that the players might decide to go in different directions at any moment. Violas and cellos float an idea suggestive of “O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden”; the violins take it up for a bit before lapsing back into pulses. Around the six-minute mark, the chorale tune emerges in full form, meditative, almost frozen in time, as if the players were reluctant to let it go. Then it gets disassembled. A secondary dominant always leads to some kind of resolution; Punctum’s is a disembodied pizzicato note.
I don’t know that the string-orchestra version improves on the original. Punctum for string quartet has a spontaneity, a sense of danger, that an ensemble of 36 or so can’t be expected to convey. The hints of “O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden” seemed more obvious than I remembered, or perhaps that’s because by Saturday I had already heard the piece a few times. In the string-quartet original, the very bareness of the chorale tune calls forth the blood and the wounds; the string-orchestra chorale is merely sweet and comforting. Those odd moments when Shaw conjures Charles Ives still registered, however. And of course it’s the BSO’s commission that enabled a larger audience to hear this very worthwhile piece.
Ravel wrote the Piano Concerto in G Major at about the same time, 1930, that he was writing the Piano Concerto for the Left Hand for Paul Wittgenstein. His own description of “divertissement de luxe” hardly does the piece justice. The Allegramente opens with a whip crack on slapstick; what follows is all jazzy syncopation and late-night blues, the 1920s Paris of Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, George Gershwin and Josephine Baker. The Adagio assai brings a music-box tune of supreme innocence and simplicity that might suggest a walk along the Seine in smoky autumn; there’s wistful regret in the culminating duet of piano and cor anglais. The Presto finale is a fox hunt in which pianist and orchestra gallop all over the countryside but keep running into dead ends. The fox has the last horse laugh, but everyone arrives back home in high spirits and in time for cocktails.
Ravel had intended to be the soloist at the premiere, but circumstances including poor health and pressures of work led him to offer it to Marguerite Long, to whom he dedicated the concerto. He contented himself with conducting the Orchestre Lamoureux at the premiere, which took place in Paris in January 1932. The record of their performance is, in the first two movements, faster and stricter than has been the norm for the past 70 years or so. Even Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli’s famously severe 1957 recording with Ettore Gracis and the Philharmonia of London sounds wayward by comparison.
Like Michelangeli and most other pianists who play this concerto, Cho takes about a minute longer in each of the first two movements than Long did in 1932. Ravel left metronome marks, but he and Long push the tempo; the current standard of 8:30 for the Allegramente and 9:30 for the Adagio assai is not far off those marks. More important, in the numerous Cho performances of this concerto that you can access on YouTube, he makes good use of the time he allows himself, and that was again the case on Saturday.
As if a whip crack to begin the Allegramente weren’t unusual enough, Ravel gives the first theme to the piccolo and has the pianist playing arpeggios with the right and left hands in different keys. Suggestions of additional themes — ideas, really — ghost by, as if the composer had ordered a flight of one-ounce cocktails. Finally the pianist settles into what sounds like a slowish second theme, there’s what passes for a development, and by the four-minute mark the recapitulation is already in full swing. The cadenza is actually a speeded-up restatement of that second theme. Another way of looking at the movement is that Ravel forgoes sonata form altogether and just repeats all the ideas of the exposition, but in a completely different way.
The opening slapstick doesn’t always make the necessary impression, but it did Saturday. Cynthia Meyers’s piccolo burbled over Nelsons’s exuberantly raucous accompaniment; Thomas Rolfs’s jazzy trumpet statement elicited a brief response from newly appointed principal Richard Sebring’s horn. The piano’s first solo idea can tempt the pianist to dawdle, but Ravel doesn’t call for the tempo to slow at this point. Cho took some license without letting the impulse flag; he saved his real poetry for the second theme. The syncopated rhythms from piano and orchestra were sharply etched, brass and winds sounded both sophisticated and affectionate, Jessica Zhou’s harp solo cascaded, and Cho coupled magisterial passagework with tender phrasing that caught the shape of Revel’s irregular melodies.
The Adagio assai is so simple it’s difficult, particularly in the first 34 bars, which the piano has to itself. The written meter is 3/4, but the left hand sounds as if it were in 6/8, meaning it oompahs along while the right hand has to sustain a single slow-moving melody over those 34 bars. Cho has shown that he can do that, tightroping between mannered and mechanical, but Saturday he tipped toward the mannered, playing around with the dynamics and trying out unusual turns of phrase. I wondered whether, as sometimes is the case with Martha Argerich in this movement, new is not true. Once the orchestra entered, a series of bright solos from flute (Clint Foreman), oboe (Amanda Hardy), clarinet (William Hudgins), and flute ensued again. But the balance between orchestra and soloist seemed to favor the orchestra, and though the duet between Robert Sheena’s cor anglais and Cho’s piano was as sublime as you’d expect and perfectly weighted between the two of them, the underpinning strings sounded a hair too prominent. Richard Ranti’s bassoon did round it off nicely.
The Presto finale got jumpstarted by Meyers’s piccolo and Thomas Martin’s E-flat clarinet before Rolfs’s trumpet and Toby Oft’s trombone jousted with the horns to launch the hunt, Oft’s bluesy glissandos suggesting that someone might have visited the drinks tray before setting out. Cho complemented his impeccable technique with an appropriate sense of humor. In his one encore, Handel’s Minuet in G minor (HWV 434/4) as arranged by Wilhelm Kempff, he was as unaffected as I wish he had been in the Adagio of the Ravel.
Stravinsky conceived Petrushka in Switzerland in the summer of 1910, after the success of his Firebird. He was meant to be developing Le sacre du printemps, but he gave himself a brief respite and worked up a concert burlesque for piano and orchestra about an obstreperous puppet. When Serge Diaghilev, the founder of the Ballets Russes, visited and heard the score, he encouraged Stravinsky to expand it into a ballet. Choreographed by Michel Fokine and designed by Alexandre Benois, Petrushka premiered at Paris’s Théâtre du Châtelet on June 13, 1911, with Pierre Monteux on the podium and Vaslav Nijinsky in the title role.
The setting is a Shrovetide fair in St. Petersburg’s Admiralty Square in 1830. Stravinsky was inspired by the Petrushka puppet popular at Russian Shrovetide fairs, a cousin to the Pulcinella of Italy’s commedia dell’arte and the Punch of England’s Punch and Judy puppet shows. In Benois’s scenario, however, Petrushka is more like the French pantomime character Pierrot. He loves Columbine, only she loves Harlequin; here Columbine is a Ballerina and Harlequin is a Moor. In the first of Petrushka’s four tableaux, the fair fizzes with activity, a pair of street dancers show off, the Magician appears and introduces his three puppets. Tableau two finds Petrushka in his room: he curses the Moor, does an exaggerated dance for the Ballerina and scares her off, curses the Moor again. Tableau three is set in the Moor’s room: the Moor and the Ballerina waltz together, and when Petrushka attempts to intervene, the Moor throws him out. Tableau four returns to the fair, where, after spirited dancing by nursemaids, gypsies, coachmen, grooms, mummers, a bear, and the Devil himself, the three puppets burst onto the scene. The Moor is in hot pursuit of Petrushka and dispatches him with a single blow; when the constabulary arrive, the Magician assures them that the “victim” is only a puppet. The fairgoers disperse, but in the gloom of dusk the Magician sees and hears the ghost of Petrushka threatening him from the theater rooftop.
Stravinsky’s original 1911 version called for quadruple winds and horns, plus two cornets and an offstage snare drum and tenor drum. In 1947, he revised the score, partly to preserve his copyright, but also to pare down the orchestra for the sake of transparency and to reflect his less opulent later style. Monteux stayed with the 1911 original on his 1959 BSO recording, as did Stravinsky for his Columbia Symphony recording a year later; Sarah Caldwell conducted the 1911 version with the BSO in 1977. Seiji Ozawa opted for the 1947 revision on his 1969 BSO recording, and that’s the version Nelsons has been conducting.
Whichever version is selected, the performance tends to run around 35 minutes — Stravinsky didn’t leave a lot of wiggle room. And it’s not as if the piece, which has many anticipations of Sacre, had become easier to perform over the past 106 years. Right at the beginning, the clarinets and horns have to trill at different speeds. One moment the piccolos are in 5/8 and the flutes in 2/4, the next the piccolos are in 7/8 and the flutes in 3/4. The Ballerina waltzes in 3/4 while the Moor, represented by cellos and basses, partners her in 2/4. The opening fair scene introduces an organ-grinder melody for the first street dancer and a music-box tune for the second; Stravinsky eventually layers one on top of the other, and he does the same with the two Russian folk songs that appear in the finale. Even the layered chord (or arpeggio) that represents Petrushka is a combination of C major and F-sharp major.
Stravinsky also didn’t leave a lot of wiggle room in the scenario; the score is quite specific about what happens when. This isn’t always apparent to a concert audience. In his 2017 Boston Philharmonic performances at Jordan Hall and Sanders Theatre, Benjamin Zander provided supertitles; that was a good idea, but even without them, a good concert interpretation can put across the scenario.
There’s a YouTube video of a 2011 Petrushka in which Nelsons leads the Concertgebouw of Amsterdam; he’s a picture of demonic, delighted glee, and it shows in the orchestra’s playing. These days he’s not quite as animated on the podium, but Saturday’s reading still bustled. Meyers’s piccolo and Foreman’s flute set up the competing street dancers, Deborah DeWolfe Emery’s celesta sang, and then Foreman introduced the Magician with a poignant ad libitum cadenza. The Russian Dance that Petrushka, the Ballerina, and the Moor perform had minor balance issues, but Hudgins and Sheena depicted Petrushka’s moment of shy languishing quite well.
In the 1911 score, ad libitum drumrolls separate the tableaux, the idea being to provide time for set changes. That score also indicates that the drumrolls are to be omitted in concert performance. Perhaps the 1947 revision has different instructions. In any case, Nelsons included this feature, and they helped delineate the tableaux. The second one begins with the Magician kicking Petrushka into his room, an act Nelsons depicted in no uncertain terms. Muted trumpets expressed Petrushka’s curses; Vytas Baksys’s puppet-like piano conveyed Petrushka’s jerky movement before delicately representing the Ballerina’s appearance; Hudgins’s solo caught his disappointment after the Ballerina leaves. The third tableau was highlighted by a colorful, exotic representation of the Moor, Rolfs’s superb toy-trumpet solo for the Ballerina’s entrance, and the waltz trio of Rolfs, Foreman, and bassoonist Richard Svoboda.
Leonard Bernstein described the beginning of the final tableau, back at the Shrovetide fair, as the sound of “one huge Russian accordion puffing and wheezing.” It can puff and wheeze to a fault. The opening folk tunes, “Vdol’ po Piterskoi” (a/k/a “Ya vechor mlada”) and “Akh, vy seni, moi seni,” were well contrasted, and they were still palpable when the orchestra played both at once. Shrill clarinets and Mike Roylance’s tuba made for a great shambling bear, but once the bear leaves, there’s a fair stretch where the choreography is more interesting than the music and a concert performance can stagnate. Nelsons didn’t let that happen.
The moment at which the Moor strikes Petrushka with his scimitar and Petrushka falls is represented by tambourine. The score instructs the percussionist to “hold the tambourine low to the floor and let it fall.” Not every percussionist is keen to let his or her tambourine bounce off the floor. Daniel Bauch had been having an excellent evening with his many tambourine thumb rolls (and credit Nelsons for letting them register), but I had misgivings when I saw him about to drop the instrument gently onto a table covered with what looked like red felt. Yet this too registered, even at where I was sitting, at the back of the second balcony. Hudgins, Svoboda, and Meyers wailed Petrushka’s death agonies; muted trumpets finished off a swell party of an evening.
Jeffrey Gantz has been writing about music, dance, theater, art, film, and books for the past 45 years, first for the Boston Phoenix and currently for the Boston Globe.