IN: Reviews

BSO = Brass


The penultimate week of the BSO season started on April 25th with unequivocal dominance of brass.

Sofia Gubaidulina’s Wrath of God opened with a triple forte of the tuba, of the sort that makes one realize that no subwoofer in one’s home theater can replicate a live performance. Dedicated to Beethoven and hinting at his question-shaped motifs, the mighty blast surely made the three-quarter full Symphony Hall pay attention to life’s persistent questions. The strings picked up some of the rhetoric, and it developed into a powerful and harmonious noise juxtaposing strings with possibly season’s most powerful wall of brass, with a quartet of Wagner Tubas helping the midrange. It further developed in a Wagnerian direction, with a cameo appearance of a good chunk of Wotan’s spear, to the point that I felt a little cheated when no Funeral of Siegfried emerged. Instead, more subdued variations and paraphrasing of the initial questioning hopped between wind sections and returned to a more human perspective. However, the Deity was not to be outwitted and ended up rebuilding the wall of Wrath, with some help from percussions, and with powerful unification of sections that at points reached an organ-like cohesion. The triumphant brass battled against the piercing tone of the first violins, but the latter refused to be drowned and miraculously held their own.

As frequently with Gubaidulina, one tends to be impressed with her concentration on a sonority of certain kind.  But with a programmatic title like this, some metaphysics are also expected, and I am taking the bait. The BSO sound was so powerful and glorious, that a listener could be excused for forgetting that this particular God is dead and buried. But the fear of the Deity did little to dissipate the Angst articulated by the violins, as our world might be heading for self-destruction. In the meantime, Valhalla overflows with illusions of control, and the piece ends with a confident answer to Beethoven’s ‘Muß es sein?, as if we had any clue what it is about.

Andris Nelsons and Thomas Rolfs (Robert Torres photo)

The celebration of brass continued with BSO Premiere of Detlev Glanert’s Concerto for Trumpet and Orchestra, commissioned for and once performed by the Principal Trumpet Thomas Rolfs in Tanglewood with TMC orchestra. A composition of smoothly welded four movements, the concerto commenced with Rites, with emphasis on the marching band trumpet and transitioned to Songs, a smörgåsbord of many other sultry or bluesy moods that the instrument can instill.  To showcase the fifty shades of gold, a variety of mutes were deployed, and Rolfs’s many admirers must have experienced something close to emotions of a kid at the dessert buffet.  In the Dances section, he also switched to piccolo trumpet, further adding to variety of moods and textures. And just as we could start thinking that it would all be about showcasing the tone, some drama arrived in the form of a cadenza. The conflict that one expects in a concerto made an appearance, though here it took an unexpected shape of a dialog between two personalities of the solo instrument. The percussive rapid-fire trumpet battled its lyrical alter ego, while the orchestra expressed heart-felt support for the latter, as it joined in for the concluding fragment titled Invocation and inspired by Glanert’s memories of his late mentor Oliver Knussen. The concerto ended harmoniously and nostalgically, though ultimately leaving the listener with one main impression: that of witnessing some miraculous trumpet playing.

After the intermission, it was the time to blow the dust off another BSO premiered piece, which mysteriously disappeared from the BSO repertoire after its debut in 1930: Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 4 Op. 47. We heard the original version from 1930, more concise than the composer’s later Soviet version published as opus 112 but still called Fourth Symphony. To complicate things further, a great deal of material in opus 47 emerged from Prokofiev’s ballet ‘Prodigal Son’, something that bothered him and led to somewhat defensive insistence, in a letter to Koussevitzky, that the Symphony had a different focus altogether. But while the piece delivered some top notch symphonic writing that was to be cherished among Prokofiev’s best, we now know that he had struggled.  In his diary from 1930, he admitted that the finale gave him particular grief. With 20/20 hindsight, it is very tempting to ascribe the challenges to Prokofiev’s ruminations at an important crossroads. The dangerous siren song  from the East had already captured his imagination, and the temptation had emerged to drop out from the extremely competitive music scene of the Free World and become an officially anointed and mass-admired genius of the Soviet Russia. Running ahead of the performance under this review, that finale’s lack of direction had remained problematic and had likely robbed the symphony of its deserved full appreciation. The opus 47 sensibility had not been far from the much beloved First ‘Classical’ Symphony, except that in the finale the composer simply did not know where he was going.

With expectations appropriately managed, one could truly enjoy this evening’s perfectly paced vintage Prokofiev. After Andante assai opening, a sweet example of the composer’s gift for incidental music, the first movement’s Allegro Eroico sailed on the power of the charming main theme, shining with Prokofiev’s melodic inventiveness and jagged lines that always manage to find resolution. BSO delivered balanced and joyful sound, while Nelsons achieved a golden balance of unrushed forward motion.

The highlight of the performance for me was in the Andante tranquillo second movement. Starting with a pastoral flute solo, it grew and blossomed under Nelsons’s baton, as clarinets and oboes picked up the theme, while tuba grumbled recalling the overall spirit of the evening. By the time the theme found its way into the violins, it brought the sense of a powerful, benevolent wave of spring mood washing over us.

Victor Khatutsky has written for the Intelligencer since 2014. He also interests himself in genomics and the poetry of Boris Pasternak.


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

  1. Question about this concert: The work by Gubaidulina announced in the annual program brochure was called “Prologue for Orchestra”. Is this the same composition that we heard on Thursday evening, The Wrath of God”?

    As for the original version of the Prokofiev Fourth, it does seem a little bland in comparison to the composer’s other music of the period, but the audience seemed to enjoy it, probably more than the audience of 1930. I think i prefer the revision of 1947, but it was worth hearing the composer’s original thoughts.

    Finally, I had to laugh at Robert Kirzinger’s article in the program booklet about Koussevitsky, in which he lists Frank Converse among commissioned composers. I’ve always thought that Frank Converse was a pretty good character actor, but I think Mr. Kirzinger was thinking of composer Frederick Converse. I wonder if any of Converse’s compositions would be worth reviving.

    Comment by George Hungerford — April 27, 2024 at 8:46 pm

  2. Frederick Converse is in need of a revival. His Mystic Trumpeter is a great introduction to his music. A lifelong resident of Westwood MA.
    A fun piece is a 1927 commission by the Detroit Symphony to commemorate the 10 millionth Ford Model T, or the “Flivver” as they were nicknamed back then.
    Converse wrote “Flivver Ten Million”. Not a masterpiece by any means, but a lot of fun.

    And by the way, its Koussevitzky, with a t, not an s. I’m not laughing!

    Comment by Brian Bell — April 28, 2024 at 12:12 pm

  3. Regarding Converse, Keith Lockhart and the BBC Concert Orchestra released a recording of Converse orchestral music some years ago with the Festival of Pan, the American Sketches, and Song of the Sea (after Whitman, cf. Vaughan Williams, Delius, Carpenter, Hadley et al.). Yes, well worth re-examining, along with the rest of his Second New England School cohort.

    Comment by Vance Koven — April 28, 2024 at 1:06 pm

  4. Wonderful review! I would make one minor correction: I believe there were two tubas in the opening of The Wrath of God, which made quite a sound. I too found the Prokofiev rather bland, but the other two compositions were anything but, and the performances were superb. With his background as a trumpeter, Nelsons has programed more trumpet concerti than his predecessors. In the past he has brought in a guest soloist. I’m glad he did not in this instance since it’s hard to imagine anyone playing the concerto better than our own guy. Speaking of Siegfried’s Funeral March, I am eagerly anticipating Act III of Götterdämmerung at Tanglewood in July.

    Comment by Rob — April 28, 2024 at 5:06 pm

  5. As a former trumpet player, I absolutely agree with Rob’s comment relative to the Detlev Glanert trumpet concerto performed by the amazingly talented Tom Rolfs. Over the last 50+ years I have heard live performances by many trumpet players, which include A.Herseth, A.Ghitalla, R.Nagel, G.,Johnson, R.Smedvig, C. Schlueter, H.Hardenberger, E. Carroll, and I doubt any of them could play this extremely demanding concerto as well as Mr. Rolfs did. It demanded the utmost virtuosity and stamina, which Mr. Rolfs so beautifully and masterfully demonstrated. I have been a devoted fan of Tom Rolfs ever since he replaced Charlie Schlueter as the principal trumpet of the BSO and the BSO is truly fortunate to have him. In closing I do believe the combination of Tom Rolfs at the top and Mike Roylance at the bottom make the BSO brass section truly indomitable, much like the CSO Herseth/Jacobs combination of 1950’s thru the 1980’s.

    Comment by David M. Grahling — April 30, 2024 at 11:28 am

  6. George Hungerford, to answer your question: Prologue for Orchestra, a BSO commission, wasn’t ready in time, so another piece had to replace it. We might still have a chance to hear the former, if the gods are so disposed.

    Comment by Victor K — April 30, 2024 at 3:27 pm

  7. Addendum to my April 30 comment: Out of respect and consideration, I really meant to say ” a devoted fan of Tom Rolfs since he replaced the very Impressive and Distinguished retired Principal Trumpeter Charlie Schlueter. My apologies for that oversight.

    Comment by David M. Grahling — May 2, 2024 at 12:21 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Leave a comment