These two works, performed in early March 2009 by the Boston Symphony Orchestra under guest conductor Alan Gilbert, elicited these observations by musicologist and composer Mark DeVoto.
Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini
A rhapsody, says the American Heritage Dictionary, is “a composition of irregular form and often improvisatory character,” a convenient definition especially when the composer isn’t certain what else to call a composition. Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodies are mostly sectional, with the sections unrelated to each other; Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue has one or two themes that return repeatedly but are sparingly developed; and even the second scene of Berg’s Wozzeck, which depends on dramatic progression, was called by him a “rhapsody on three chords.” Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini is more highly structured and formally economical than the title would indicate. It consists of 24 variations, some of them freely expanded into cadenzas, but with an overall layout roughly corresponding to a three-movements-in-one form, fast-slow-fast. The theme from Paganini’s 24th Caprice was the springboard for one of Liszt’s Grand Etudes (No. 5), as well as for virtuoso variation sets by Schumann and Brahms and, in our own time, by Lutoslawski; but Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody has always been the best known of all of these, and, of all of his works for piano and orchestra, the most grateful to play. It may not be as popular with the public as the immortal Second Concerto, but neither is it as grandiose and bombastic. I’m looking at the performance history, too. Rachmaninoff played the premiere of the Rhapsody in Baltimore in 1934, and the Boston premieres in 1937 with Koussevitzky. (I remember that Rachmaninoff twice was offered, and twice refused, the directorship of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.) I grew up with a recording of the Rhapsody played by Julius Katchen and the London Philharmonic under Sir Adrian Boult, and I never heard a better one; but Tuesday’s performance at the Boston Symphony under Guest Conductor Alan Gilbert was certainly of that caliber.
In existence for a decade, Radius, one of Boston’s finest music ensembles continued its 2008-09 concert season at Killian Hall on the campus of MIT in Cambridge, Saturday March 7. Three pieces—
Shrill fanfares in the high piano register announced vast wreckage and destruction in Sophia Gubaidulina’s Quasi hoquetus. With passages that outline distinct shapes, blocks, lines, solids, and the like, one can imagine the music emanating from the likes of a Kandinsky.
Described as one kind of culinary delight or another in both pre-concert and concert remarks, Aria, by 20th century French composer Jacque Ibert, completely changed the program’s direction—once again! Call, a pièce de résistance, light, pleasant, tasty.
Radius concluded it with String Quintet No.1, op. 88 by Johannes Brahms. Each of the five instruments’ personalities could be seen through a range of physical expressions from the dynamic to the restrained. All, though, were entirely on the same page.
Hooray for this daring programming here in Boston. [Click title for full review.]
Anthology, an all-female vocal quartet, took the daring path of commissioning eight new works for the concert on the theme of “Songs of Protest and Social Unrest.” Composer Ivana Lisak chose to set a powerful text by Carl Sandburg, entitled Killers. The homo-rhythmic minimalism of Michael J. Veloso’s List, a recitation of the names of the Hollywood Ten, a group of men persecuted for their refusal to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, evoked a medieval meditative quality. His Processing drew on an operations manual from a detention camp in Guantanamo Bay. Erin Huelskamp’s A Protest proved the most memorable and startlingly revelatory work of the evening. Her choice was a Victorian-era poem by Arthur Hugh Clough. The anxiety expressed by a woman who rises to speak her opinion before a hostile assembly unfolds haltingly and in overlapping waves of forward motion, then hesitation. Speech-like declamations spar with sung comments, electrifying the psychological battle. Eva Kendrick’s moving setting of Joan Lavender Guthrie’s To D.R. in Holloway brought the work of this little-known poet to light and reminded us of the struggle for women’s suffrage. It also gave soprano Anney Gillotte a spirited and gospel-inflected cadenza; all the singing here, as elsewhere was exhilarating. [Click title for full review.]