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BSO Engages Two Senses

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Yefim Bronfman, Andris Nelsons,  and Anna Gawboy (Winslow Townson photos)

This week’s Boston Symphony series, heralded as the first of two “Music for the senses” and invoking synesthesia and the artistry of light shows, is a complicated affair.

The much-written-about and yet seldom-heard Prometheus: Poem of Fire, op. 60, by Alexander Scriabin, for piano, organ, color organ, chorus, and orchestra constituted the main event. Yefim Bronfman, whose fine solo recital I wrote about two weeks ago, took the piano solo; Anna Gawboy, lighting researcher; Justin Townsend, lighting designer; and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, James Burton, conductor also participated. Two technicians, one of whom read directly from the 45-stave orchestral score to coordinate with Andris Nelsons’s stick controlled an elaborate, computer interfaced lighting setup in Symphony Hall. The lighting included several arrays of spotlights directly over the audience, including a few movables pointed toward the back of the stage, and at various locations throughout the hall, even in the clerestory windows. A 12-hour clock face, with straight light sticks radiating from the center in place of the numerals, featured directly in front of the organ pipes, and these, like laser sabers, were variable in all colors with moving boli and bubbles, regularly synchronized to rhythmic gestures in the music. Even the familiar overhead chandeliers were made to fade in and out in rhythm. The overhead spots at one point brilliantly flooded the audience with white light, which turned red a few minutes later, and then blue — it could have been a nationalist expression, French or American. The whole thing felt like quite a show, and at Scriabin’s overpowering fff on the last page of the full score, on an F-sharp major triad, it proved fully convincing. (The orchestra isn’t as big as The Rite of Spring, but almost: 3-picc.-3-Eng.horn-3-basscl.-3-cbn.; 8-5-3-1, timpani, much perc., celesta, 2 harps, organ, strings.)

The music of Scriabin’s Prometheus has always seemed enigmatic to me, when I try to reach beyond the literary-mystical background (Theosophy, eastern religions, Nietzsche, etc.) and the scheme of associating 12 keys with 12 colors (the part for “Luce” at the top of the full score is given in musical notation, complete with sharps and flats, crossed voices, and dotted half-notes of long duration). The so-called “mystic chord,” a hexachord of whole-tone scale degrees plus a couple of added fourths, already known from Scriabin’s late piano preludes and sonatas, is tossed about the entire score of Prometheus, in every transposition, seldom suggesting even a remote paratonality, and the orchestral dialogue leaves only block chords, grace-note figures, and arpeggios for the piano to bandy about. The overall form is elusive if not completely shapeless; we observe few themes and no development, except gradual atonal motion between climaxes that don’t sound in the least as though they were going anywhere. The score itself is full of complex and mostly inaudible details, especially in performance indications: Scriabin intersperses standard Italian markings with abundant adjectives in Russian-fashionable French, such as brumeux (foggy), joyeux, voluptueux, mystérieux, impérieux, belliqueux, orageux (stormy), which I mention here because I suspect that he associated the “x” ending with the Christian cross. Scriabin composed his better-known Poem of Ecstasy, two years earlier (1908); it demands an orchestra equally large and violent, much less French, and a rather more palpable overall form, and ends in fff C major — the polar opposite of Prometheus. [I reviewed it HERE] But Stravinsky was on to something about “those severe cases of musical emphysema.” The ten-year-younger-Stravinsky disliked Scriabin personally and denied, unsuccessfully, that he had influenced his style, but he also wondered what kind of music Scriabin might have written if he had not died at age 43, still influenced by Debussy and perhaps even by Schoenberg, but headed in his own ultraplanetary direction.

I assume that the lighting realized the composer’s intentions much more accurately than would have been possible in his own time. Bronfman understandably played from score; his piano sound, though crystalline, seemed small against the massive orchestra, and I sensed that he was puzzled by the music — nor would he have been alone in that regard.

The concert began with a pleasant new work, Color Field by the British composer Anna Clyne, a tonal suite composed to honor a philanthropist friend, and taking inspiration in part from a Mark Rothko’s, Orange, Red, Yellow, which transferred reversely to the three movements of Clyne’s work, and the those colors were also projected against the organ pipes (although the red sometimes confused the orange). The small orchestra of 2-(picc.)-2(Eng. Horn)-2(Eflatcl.)-2(cbn.), 2-2-0-0, timp., 4 perc., strings; included a percussion complement that included two sets of crotales and two vibraphones, positioned at opposite corners of the stage “Yellow” sounded in D minor-major triadic layers, in divided strings with soft trumpet; “Red” projected a C major-minor of furious string scales and contrasting wind fanfares; “Orange,” taken much slower, included a rocking 6/8, Firebird harmonic glissandi, intercalated scalar outbursts, and ostinato basses. In style, the inclusion of Serbian folksong melodies might cause one to say Vaughan Williams meets Philip Glass, to the advantage of both.

Prometheus is also the title of a companion piece to the Scriabin, Liszt’s well-known symphonic poem from 1855 which, surprisingly, the Boston Symphony had previously performed only in 1917. Not as popular as Les Préludes or Orpheus or even Mazeppa, and its tonality wanders, but one can follow its form. The brass were, as often with Nelsons’s encouragement, too loud and too brash, but the style was triumphal.

Before the intermission the Prelude and Liebestod (I prefer the title “Prelude and Transfiguration” from Robert Bailey’s Norton Critical Score) from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, came as a major disappointment. The pianissimo cellos, at the beginning, got off to a careful and sensitive start; the winds that followed weren’t precisely together. (This is admittedly a common failing.) The critically blended wind-string sound of this beloved prelude requires scrupulous attention to dynamics, especially in the string scales before the fortissimo climax, and Nelsons, in his effort to hurry the piece, seemed not to care that these even existed. There’s no doubt that the Klangfarben sound is difficult to parse convincingly, but I detected no leadership here. In the first bars of the “Liebestod” the trombones, (marked ppp) outvoted the pp-marked bass clarinet. And the tempo at the f (not fff) climax is not meant to be rushed — Isolde is supposed to be dying here, after all. Maybe these weaknesses come from lack of rehearsal time in the face of the greater time and effort needed for the Scriabin, but we expected better for this famous piece from one who led the entire second act of the opera so effectively six years ago [HERE].

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.

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