IN: Reviews

Stunning Intelligence at Symphony Hall

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In a smart move, the BSO changed the order of this week’s first-half program. As Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s evocative and riveting 2022 ARCHORA deserved primacy, it opened Thursday night’s subscription concert. After that, Mozart’s 33rd Symphony sounded, well, staidly dated. Following intermission, Hilary Hahn’s intelligent warmth pervaded Symphony Hall with a sagaciously bravura Brahms Violin Concerto.

Hilary Hahn in Brahms Violin Concerto (Winslow Townson photo)

In ARCHORA, Thorvaldsdottir created startlingly innovative sounds, or perhaps recreated them with spellbinding use of instruments we thought we knew. Learning it had been commissioned by BBC Proms and co-commissioned by the LA Phil, Munich Philharmonic, the Orchestre de Paris, Iceland Symphony Orchestra and Klangspuren Schwas, and premiered to much acclaim in 2022, one immediately realizes this composer deserves, even demands wide hearing. Many hear geology and a travelogue in sound within her music, though the composer repeatedly states that her work encompasses “the Primordia” and its afterglow, in an abstract way. Scored for 2 flutes, alto flute, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons and contrabassoon, 4 horns, trombone, bass trombone, tuba and bass tuba, 3 percussionists playing the usual plus gongs, tam-tam, large bass drum, and strings, as well as organ (optional but used in these BSO concerts with rumbling bass), the composer literally drew and painted its contours while writing it, though she told BMInt in her interview HERE that those graphic representations served as mnemonic aides for her rather than compositional tools. ARCHORA’s three sections —Worlds within Worlds, Divergence, and Primordia―flow without pause. The first, Worlds within Worlds enters with a strong D flat onto which strong sounds and harmonics build, many birdlike, along with pizzicato. And rumblings. And foghorn-like blasts and the sense of an unseen harmonic world bursting forth. The next section, Divergence feels gentler, softer, even translucent. Primordia, the last section takes up nearly half of the piece with unique harmonic and colorful otherworldly sounds. Throughout, the players looked alternately rapt and excited.

Alas, Thorvaldsdottir could not join Nelsons and the orchestra for this week’s concerts, as she was in Venice receiving the CHANEL NEXT PRIZE 2024, biennially awarded to ten artists who are “redefining their chosen discipline.” Both audience and orchestra were nonetheless thrilled.

After ARCHORA, the compellingly direct, four-movement version of Mozart’s lightly orchestrated Symphony No. 33 in B-flat Major (K319), seemed an amuse bouche, though the faithful execution facilitated our appreciation of the mid-sections of the three original movements for their novel themes. In the initial Allegro Assai the orchestra displayed the composer’s ever-present exuberance. The lyrical sound of BSO strings justified the Andante moderato tempo with impeccable wind accents. The added Menuetto Trio provided jocular contrast with its folk-tune like wind contributions. The exuberant Finale: Allegro assai always seems shorter than it actually is, feeling like a hunt racing by, led by the violins with support from the rest of the orchestra.

An NEC master class preceding these concerts heightened anticipation over Hilary Hahn’s appearance. When the violinist told the crowd at her packed-to-overflowing Wednesday AM class that she would turn down an audience request to use a mike because this was a conversation between her and the performer and that the audience would get more by listening for whether and how the performer’s playing changed, admiration for her insight, empathy and kindness grew even larger (the class was exceptional).

Hahn’s rendition of the Brahms Violin Concerto exemplified her love for the music, excitement and generosity, as reflected by her obvious listening and gazing at each section of the orchestra, each solo within. This violinist took on the massive first movement with its intricate passages in which the soloist floats and billows above the orchestra with verve and facility, carrying orchestra and audience with her. She delivered the long cadenza, reflecting Joachim’s contributions and partnership with Brahms in this concerto, with concentration and passion. In the Adagio, initiated with its chorale-like passage for oboe, then intensified as variation by the violin, Hahn’s transcendent tone enchanted. The finale, Allegro giocoso, ma non troppo vivace, provided a Brahmsian signature opportunity for wild joy, in which both soloist and orchestra left the audience breathless.

After several curtain calls, Hahn graciously played Bach’s Sarabande from the Partita in D Minor, a generous, intricate, and reflective ending. Seats will be hard to find tonight.
Julie Ingelfinger studied piano at the Hartt School of Music, Aspen Music Festival and School and at Harvard. She enjoys her day jobs as professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, pediatric nephrologist at Mass General Hospital for Children and deputy editor at the New England Journal of Medicine.

2 Comments »

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

  1. “Unworldly sounds” is right. The soundscape of Thorvaldsdottir’s ARCHORA was amazing, hypnotizing music. Regardless of what the composer says, it feels like an evocation of the fascinating, unworldly landscape of Iceland. No one can upstage Mozart, Brahms, and Hillary Hahn, but Thorvaldsdottir seemed to do just that.

    Thanks for the fine review of all the musical action here.

    — Tad Campion

    Comment by Enticing Unworldly Sounds — April 21, 2024 at 9:49 pm

  2. I agree about the underlying evocation of the vast, fierce and unworldly landscape of Iceland. Captivating work! With one or two subtle but deep roots in Sibelius (?). The intimate and graceful Mozart seemed to me to be full of reminiscences of his departed mother: “Mother as milieu” in our childhood (1st movement, allegro assai); then “Absence” and that strange feeling of being an orphan (2nd movement, andante moderato); then “Mother as principle of life within me” — as the most basic good Introject, remaining in us after death in a sort of personal “et adhuc tecum sum” (finale, allegro assai). Anyway, thank you for such an excellent review.

    Comment by Ashley — April 22, 2024 at 8:37 am

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