IN: Reviews

Exciting, Colorful, Varied


Mark Elder (Michael J. Lutch photo)

Friday afternoon’s BSO subscription concert, one of the most interesting musical events I have attended in many months, centered on a commissioned work and also contained a fine cohort of less-often-heard masterpieces, masterfully directed by a visiting expert, Sir Mark Elder, director of the Hallé Orchestra of Manchester.

Ravel’s Ma Mère l’Oye, Mother Goose, is familiar to everyone in its original piano-duet form (1908) or as a suite for smaller orchestra; the so-called complete version rearranges the order of pieces, adds a Prelude and Spinning-wheel Dance, and inserts some brief interludes. It is fairy-tale music of surpassing tenderness and wit, set in a strong but sensitive orchestral fabric for which Ravel was already famous. In 1910 the 28-year-old Stravinsky came to Paris to dazzle the French composers with Russian exoticism in Firebird, and significant influence from the younger composer is apparent in the forest noises in Ravel’s ballet.

Elena Langer, a native of Russia now resident in England, was present for the Boston premiere of what she called “a cross between a cello concerto and a cantata,” her co-commission for the BSO and the London Symphony, which had premiered the work last year.  The Dong with a Luminous Nose, for chorus, solo cello, and orchestra, uses Edward Lear’s lengthy nonsense text of 1887 (this appeared in supertitle projection on a screen above the stage as the chorus sang). The new work displays Langer’s fondness for her adopted language, and I immediately remembered that Stravinsky’s last composition, in 1966, had set Lear’s The Owl and the Pussycat, a favorite poem of his wife. It contained an abundance of bells and warm triadic sound, especially in the verse-cadences sung blazingly by the chorus, from the opening growly darkness to open-air luminosity. Much of the well-scanned text swayed back and forth in 6/8, with waltzlike episodes and melodies in parallel thirds. Choral outbursts were set off by cadenzas for the BSO principal Blaise Déjardin; he sat front and center and began the piece with total expressive attention. The Tanglewood Festival Chorus made much of the Lear’s text, sounding like a 20th-century Anglican choral-society, and veering occasionally into a parodistic style like Shostakovich’s. The ambience, often shrill and high-register, projected plenty of string harmonics and piccolo, though much of the advertised complex percussion wasn’t audible. The Dong’s luminous nose, one learns, “seeks in vain / To meet with his Jumbly Girl again,” like Diogenes and his lantern. But the search is successful, bringing forth this 25-minute-long cantata of considerable coloristic charm with a luminous pianissimo E-major ending.

In my posting in these pages for March 27th, 2011, I gave notice that the Boston Symphony had never once performed Dvořák’s symphonic poem Polednice, The Noonday Witch, op. 108.  Finally, in this week’s concerts, the BSO made up for the absence from Symphony Hall, so I cheerfully take some credit for this, especially since the orchestra’s handout made good use of my earlier notes from a Tanglewood traversal on July 11, 2014, led by Nelsons.  The third work to connect with the depths of the child’s world, this Czech folk tale in music, sounding almost silly on the surface, also reaches into also the most tragic realms. As a post- “New World” symphonic poem, it reveals how Dvořák advanced in originality and technically inventiveness in his later years. The orchestra’s brilliant performance obviously moved the audience deeply. Elder’s outstanding control of the dynamics, especially in the heavy fff brass, developed an emotionally shattering fullness of orchestral sound.

The choral risers at the rear of the stage, assembled for Elena Langer’s premiere, proved perfectly useful for elevating 16 extra brass demanded for the fanfares that begin and end Leoš Janáček’s Sinfonietta (1926). What an amazing overall sound! It’s an orchestral spectacular of striking Czech originality, as different as possible from other concert music of the time, owing nothing at all to influences from other central Europeans, German heavies, or even Bartók. The score is replete with repeat signs on almost every page, in patterns or in entire irregular phrases, and is full of registral extremes in both winds and strings, ostinati like nothing of Stravinsky’s, and favorite keys — especially A-flat minor, which Janáček uses in other works but always, mystically, with the accidentals written out entire, and never with the seven-flat key signature. Yet with all this anti-symphonic repetition and folk-tune inspiration, there’s never a dull moment in this resplendent work of five very different movements (orchestra: 3+picc.-2+Eng.horn-2+ Eflatcl.+basscl.-2, 4-3-3-1, harp, 4 timpani, cymbals, bells, and strings, plus 9 trumpets. 2 bass trumpets, and 2 Wagner tenor tubas).

The brass sounded gratifying loud but perfectly modulated and never edgy (I have complained before about how Andris Nelsons often coaxes the trumpets and trombones to play too loud; this never happened with Elder yesterday, and yet the sound positively thundered). The strings, with Violins II placed at the right, in front of the cellos, for this series of concerts only, also outdid themselves in tonal strength and color; visiting concertmaster, Budapest-based Nathan Giem, Budapest, concertmaster for the Hungarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, seemed reassured and able, and well supported by Alexander Velinzon in second chair). During the entire afternoon I felt very much at home with Elder (in a black Nehru jacket). In full and confident control of everything, omitting his baton in the Langer work for the benefit of the chorus, he seemed to be enjoying himself, as much as the orchestra. Everyone appeared totally committed to an unusually fresh and inventive program.

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.
Thirteen extra brass above. Below: Blaise Déjardin and Elena Langer (Michael J. Lutch photos)


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

  1. What Mark writes is exactly how it was. Langer’s piece was varied and surprising, with great blasts and gentle, dance-like moments, such as the setting for the lines from the original Jumblies poem.
    The Noonwitch recalled Der Erlkónig in its suspenseful horror.
    A truly memorable afternoon.

    Comment by Joan Sindall — March 16, 2024 at 6:11 pm

  2. An excellent concert! Mark Elder has presented interesting programs in the past, so I wonder why he hasn’t appeared here since 2011. I’ve always wanted to hear The Noonday Witch “live”, so that was one of the pleasures of this program. (I seem to remember seeing this piece listed on a Tanglewood program several years ago, but I may be wrong.)

    I’ve been enjoying this season’s concerts that don’t contain symphonies (e.g., the Ligeti/Liszt/Ades program, and the recent Nielsen/Sibelius combination),and I’m looking forward to the upcoming Clyne/Wagner/Liszt/Scriabin concert.

    Comment by George Hungerford — March 16, 2024 at 8:03 pm

  3. The concert was profoundly moving. The entire program conveyed poignancy, beautifully conducted by Sir Mark, whose interpretations gave full notice to the orchestration below the melodic line, which was refreshing. I listened to the broadcast on Sat. night, which was nice, but I regretted not making the effort to go to a second performance at the BSO….

    it was interesting to compare this performance with that of The Met’s La Forza del Destino on Sat. Its visual cinematic effects did make a point of current relevance (although the Bunnies were a bit much), but the BSO concert reaffirms how music itself conveys profound human emotions..

    Blaise Desjardin was superb. Good to remember that he helped initiate A Far Cry, another of Boston’s gems… Aren’t we Lucky here in Boston?

    Comment by Bettina A Norton — March 16, 2024 at 10:45 pm

  4. We were fortunate enough to attend last night’s concert and completely concur with both the excellent review and previous comments. My main comparison to this performance of the Sinfonietta was a stunning interpretation of this work I own as a recording by the late Sir Charles Mackerras, conducting the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. Last night’s rendition was very competitive, indeed, with amazing playing by our orchestra expertly led by Sir Mark Elder. I did feel some of the quicker string passages might have further benefitted from a more staccato approach, evident in the recording. From watching the conductor, it seemed he was also trying to coax that from the musicians. Otherwise, this piece, and the remainder of the program were, as others have said, truly refreshing content. I am glad that in this season, there were less of the “warhorses,” providing the opportunity to hear infrequently or never performed music by such a fine ensemble. In that light, I note that Professor DeVoto was a student of Walter Piston. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to hear selections of his music performed here! I also have hoped one day to hear our orchestra play some of the Delius shorter works, including “Brigg Fair,” or “On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring.” So much wonderful music is out there, and such terrific programming as has occurred this year could signal a trend to re-invigorate the concert schedule. We also will be attending the forthcoming Clyne/Wagner/Liszt/Scriabin concert. Bravo to all concerned last night, and seeing a towering figure like Sir Mark Elder marshal the musical forces before him with such confidence was a joy to behold.

    Comment by Jonathan Kleefield — March 17, 2024 at 7:34 am

  5. Thanks for you thoughtful review of the BSO’s stunning concert last weekend. I can’t add a thing to what you expressed so well, other than to say I was so taken with Thursday night’s performance that I went back again Friday afternoon, especially for a second hearing of Langer’s enthralling cantata/cello concerto/opera “The Dong with a luminous Nose.” What a delight. A second hearing reaffirmed Langer’s sensitivity to the colorful, witty poem, and the sheer pleasure of losing ones self in this entertaining and even profound work. And indeed, as you say, a varied and captivating program over all.

    Comment by Richard B. Beams — March 18, 2024 at 12:07 pm

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