In the usually very popular post-thanksgiving subscriptions concerts (Friday afternoon and Saturday night), an instrument more associated with big bands takes pride of place on the Symphony Hall stage as BSO Assistant Conductor Earl Lee leads the sultry, atmospheric 1949 Saxophone Concerto by French composer Henri Tomasi; as soloist Steven Banks makes his BSO debut. The show opens with a very French symphonic poem, César Franck’s Le Chasseur maudit — “The Cursed Hunter” —based on a ballad about a man who commits the grave sin of hunting on the Sabbath and is doomed to be chased eternally by demons. The closer, Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4, opens with the famous “fate” motif, before composer’s great gift for beautiful melody sweetens it. Tickets HERE. Our brief discussion with Earl Lee follows.
FLE: Franck’s Le Chasseur maudit (Accursed Huntsman) surprisingly isn’t actually a BSO rarity. Starting with Gericke in 1901, it was done every ten years or so up through Monteux in 1920. Since then it’s been revived every 20-30 years or so. What accounts for its minor durability among the Franck symphonic poems?
EL: Yes, in fact it was one of the pieces of which I made my debut with the San Francisco Symphony. A number of people have mentioned the strong affiliation this piece has with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, including the famous recording with Charles Munch [HERE]. Since then, the idea of possibly programming this piece with the BSO was always sitting in my head. I am thrilled to bring it back to the Symphony Hall.
How does it stack up against Ce qu’on entend sur la montagne, Les Éolides, Rédemption, Psyché?
I think it is the most virtuosic tone poem of them all, showcasing the different instruments in the orchestra. It is one of the few pieces by Franck that makes me forget that he was an organist. In La montagne, he makes the orchestra sound like an organ, in contrast.
Can I be forgiven for hearing the Dukas’s Sorcerer’s Apprentice? And it’s just as scary.
Another piece that I love. Yes, you are totally right! I guess it has something to do with the main character being chased. Either by a deluge of water or demon.
Are the BSO horns up to the dramatic intro?
They are amazing, and I am looking forward to it! I do have a little surprise for you. You can ask me about it afterwards! But I am sure you will figure out what it is.
Are you a Franckophile? Have you conducted any of his many religious works?
I, unfortunately, haven’t conducted any of the religious works.
Continuing in the French vein, Henri Tomasi (1901 – 1971) seems to have been interested in wind instruments. The BSO did his rather lyrical Ballade for Saxophone with dedicatee Marcel Mule under Munch in 1958. The orchestra hasn’t played it since, and this looks like the first time the BSO has played the Saxophone Concerto
Thank you for this information! We are all excited to bring it on stage.
It’s not a difficult work for listeners, I gather, though at times it’s rather dark, which is not surprising since Tomasi composed it in 1948 in a period of disillusionment. What attracted you to it?
Steven Banks suggested it after looking at the other pieces on the program. We fell in love with the piece right away.
Do you have any connections with the Banks?
Yes, I worked with him few years ago in Eugene, Oregon with a chamber orchestra called Oregon Mozart Players. Steven played the Mozart Oboe Concerto, K.314 on soprano sax. He is a really beautiful musician.
Do you know the first major symphonic composer to write for the saxophone? (Chant Sacré by Berlioz 1844)
Now I do. Thank you!
Since winning the George Solti Award, you have become busier and busier, with recent debuts with the NY Phil and San Francisco Symphony. Do you still have time to play the cello?
Unfortunately, my cello is more of a furniture piece in the corner of my living room. Well, jokes aside, I do take it out time to time when I am studying. It helps me to think in the perspective of a musician in the orchestra.
Do you consider yourself a specialist in any particular repertoire? Anything you never want to hear again…like the Tchaikovsky Fourth?
No, there are so many amazing pieces of music out there and such limited time to study them all. I do have a very soft spot for Schumann, particularly his string quartets and symphonies.