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MusicThe Berkshire Review in Boston

Things are heating up at the BSO: Harbison Symphonies Nos. 4 and 5 and more under Morlot and Bělohlávek

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John Harbison
John Harbison

Boston Symphony Orchestra
Symphony Hall

Thursday, November 17, 2011, 8:00 pm

Berlioz, Mozart, Carter and Bartók

Ludovic Morlot, conductor
Richard Goode, piano
Elizabeth Rowe, flute

Berlioz ‑ Roman Carnival Overture
Mozart 
‑ Piano Concerto No. 25 in C, K.503
Carter ‑ 
Flute Concerto
Bartók ‑ 
Suite from The Miraculous Mandarin

Tuesday, November 29, 2011, 8:00 pm

Harbison, Ravel and Mahler
Symphony Hall

Ludovic Morlot, conductor

Harbison ‑ Symphony No. 4
Ravel ‑ 
Daphnis et Chloé, Suite No. 2
Mahler ‑ 
Symphony No. 1

Thursday, December 1, 2011, 8:00 pm

Beethoven and Harbison
Symphony Hall

Jiří Bělohlávek, conductor
Jonathan Biss, piano
Sasha Cooke, mezzo-soprano
Gerald Finley, baritone

Harbison ‑ Symphony No. 5
Beethoven ‑ 
Piano Concerto No. 4
Beethoven ‑ 
Leonore Overture No. 3

Things are heating up at the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The spate of recent exciting performances began with the great Tchaikovsky “Pathéthique” under Myung-Whun Chung, and has continued with two concert series under Ludovic Morlot, and a series under Czech conductor Jiří Bělohlávek. Both Morlot and Bělohlávek led symphonies by John Harbison, part of the series of his six symphonies the BSO began to last season, and will conclude in January. This is material of major importance and interest. It was a great thing for the orchestra to undertake, and the recent performances have been very effective, as were those of the earlier symphonies under James Levine last season. The orchestra musicians seem really to want to play this work, and go about it with a sense of great commitment. Audience response has been very warm.

Ludovic Morlot was an Assistant Conductor of the BSO during the Levine years, and lately his career has been flourishing. He has recently taken over directorship of the Seattle Symphony, and will soon take charge of the orchestra of La Monnaie in Brussels. He will lead his recent BSO programs on the orchestra’s upcoming West Coast tour, and the musicians seem happy to be working with him. Morlot’s performances show great energy, rhythmic bite, clarity of texture, and, when called for, love of a big sound. His first program began with a spirited account of the Berlioz Roman Carnival Overture—tight, bright, fresh sounding at every point. The large work at program’s end was the Suite from Bartók’s ballet The Miraculous Mandarin—wild, colorful, expressionistic, high-energy music, here brilliantly played, the huge orchestral forces well coordinated. In between the Berlioz and the Bartók came two concertos. The orchestra reprised Elliott Carter’s Flute Concerto, which it co-commissioned and first played in 2008. BSO principal flutist Elizabeth Rowe was again the soloist, fleet and brilliant in the opening and closing fast sections and long-lined and plangent in the beautiful extended slow song that comprises the middle and heart of the work. The only thing ineffectively rendered on the program was Mozart’s C-Major Piano Concerto, K. 503, Mozart’s most symphonic concerto. Pianist Richard Goode played a beautiful phrase here and there, but there was much more grimacing and agonizing than actual keyboard delivery, and Morlot did not find much interesting in this great piece. (Try the Gieseking recording with Hans Rosbaud conducting.)

The second Morlot program opened with Harbison’s Symphony No. 4, from 2004, consisting of five relatively short movements, each distinct, each ending quite abruptly, with little sense of cadence. The musical feel is brassy and urban, especially at first and in the end, with some kinship in fact to the street-scene opening of The Miraculous Mandarin, but here quite American, with overtones of the Jazz Age, big bands, and even American film music in big-city contexts. Just before this piece Harbison had completed and brought out his opera The Great Gatsby. The Symphony’s inner movements evoke psychological pain and a sense of loss, but keep it at a distance, signing and pointing but not giving us the experience, seeming almost afraid to. It is a work of rhetorical gestures and fragments. It does not accumulate, as we tend to think a symphony will do. All this is not meant as criticism, just as description of a work that means, as I see it, to gesture and point but leave gaps, stop short of development, continually move on. The very effective performance was followed by two more. First came the Suite No. 2 from Ravel’s ballet Daphnis et Chloé, a signature piece for the BSO, whose recording under Levine of the complete ballet won a Grammy. Morlot has a different way than Levine’s with this music, less long-lined and sublime, more bright and pointed and biting, and he built to an exciting grand noise at the end. After intermission came Mahler’s Symphony No. 1, and the first thing to say is that Morlot managed to make all these pieces sound as if they really belong on the same program, belonging to the same sound world and seeming even emotionally kin. Mahler’s symphony creates a protagonist, once called by Mahler “Titan,” but better understood as “Wayfarer”—and Mahler uses music from his own Songs of a Wayfarer as a main theme. The Wayfarer is exposed to forests and bird calls, robust country dancing, folk songs and klezmer music, the threat of spooks if not death, and blazing transcendence—and on this occasion Ravel’s sensuous and sunny and obsessively dancing Daphnis world seemed an experience the Wayfarer might walk into. Mahler’s blazing eight horns toward the end seemed kin to the climax of Ravel’s Daybreak music in the first part of the Daphnis Suite. The Mahler is copious, where the Harbison is fragmentary, but they have in common the sense of an experiencer moving through dramatically different experiences. Morlot led a performance of the Mahler that held one’s attention all the way, inducing one to listen to every note. The piece sounded new and, in an interesting way, all out in the daylight—again, kin to the Ravel—perhaps lacking a bit in suspense, moodiness, spontaneous pacing, sudden dramatic turns—East European-ness, we might say. Principal bassist Edwin Barker was wonderful soloing in the great creepy minor-key version of Frère Jacques that starts and comes back to haunt the slow movement.

Jiří Bělohlávek has had a distinguished international career for decades now, heading the BBC Symphony and the Czech Philharmonic, and appearing with major orchestras and opera companies worldwide. He is a master conductor, and here led a very devoted performance of the Harbison Symphony No. 5, a BSO commission from 2008. The musicians and singers gave this performance their all—one sensed excitement about the piece, respect for Harbison, and trust in Bělohlávek. The piece is surely one of Harbison’s finest, presenting a take on the Orpheus story with poetic texts, singers, and the complement of a large orchestra in process of developing a symphonic structure. Interesting to hear this soon after Boston Early Music Festival’s presentation of Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s opera La Descente d’Orphée aux enfers, a straightforward and moving rendering of the loss of Eurydice and Orpheus’s journey to the Underworld to get her back (minus, apparently, a final act that would show her second and final loss)—this the sort of classic account of the material, like Monteverdi’s earlier great opera Orfeo and Gluck’s later version, that Harbison and his texts must work against or re-envision. The bulk of Harbison’s symphony sets Polish poet Czeslaw Miłosz’s “Orpheus and Eurydice,” a very modern-seeming account, with cars, glass panels, elevators, “electronic dogs,” a cold and “ashy” Underworld, and a somewhat neurotic, self-doubting protagonist—we are close to the look and mood of Jean Cocteau’s film Orphée, with its bikers and cars, futuristic “Zone,” surreality, and angst. The piece begins with a forthright brass motif, heroic in a way, perhaps representing Orpheus, then clouds this with wild string figurations—it all feels kin to the openings of Harbison’s Symphony No. 4 and of The Miraculous Mandarin, but is not American-sounding, and perhaps not urban—just psychic turmoil. The music quiets down and thins out as Orpheus descends and experiences cold and desolation and the glances of those he thinks he may have harmed in life, and ultimately a worn and unnerving Persephone in her dead, black garden, who gives him permission to take back Eurydice (no formidable god Pluto here—it is a feminine world, where Persephone seems almost an alter-ego of Eurydice). The text is third person, though the speaker seems at times fully to identify with Orpheus, and Persephone. Baritone Gerald Finley sang the taxing part with strong voice, perfect clarity of words, and great feeling. The music has its silences and surprises as the journey and experience unfold. A spiky electric guitar comes to life to represent Orpheus’s lyre. The piece moves without interruption into a second movement at this point, and new sounds occur, such as a bleached out effect for Persephone’s dialogue, and weird percussion for the footsteps Orpheus hears behind him. At the end Orpheus loses Eurydice not because he disobeys the rules and looks back, as in traditional accounts, but simply because the rescue of the dead cannot be—she is finally just not there, “as he expected,” and he is back among herbs and bees and sun, as if the adventure were all a dream. The piece takes on the character of a symphony most by virtue of the third and fourth movements, which provide a re-thinking of the narrative of the first two movements, a casting of the narrative into new light. A symphony (unless it is an anti-symphony like Harbison’s No. 4) needs to go somewhere and to break into new dimensions, to reflect on itself. The third movement, setting Louise Glück’s poem “Relic,” from an Orpheus cycle, brings forth Eurydice’s voice and point of view, in a wonderfully hesitant music, clinging to memories of Orpheus despite all the “terror” of her experience, making her a real presence, much more than the dream of a poet mainly now involved with bees and sun. Mezzo Sasha Cooke came forth full-voiced and affecting for this monologue. In the final movement the two singers join, rendering Rilke’s Sonnet to Orpheus “Sei allem Abschied voran…” (in Stephen Mitchell’s English translation), singing canonically in octaves and in unison, overcoming and transcending the experience of loss as far as possible, putting it at a distance, the two voices seeming at once those of Orpheus and Eurydice and voices of commentators, or those newly born, at a distance from their once suffering selves.

The concert continued after intermission with Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4, in G Major, his greatest piano concerto, the only one to compare with, say, Mozart’s K. 503. Pianist Jonathan Biss did not relish every wrinkle and detail of this marvelous piece, but he was very winning with a beautiful sunny tone, played the opening solo main theme very expressively, so that one really wanted to hear what followed, and set up a spellbinding dialogue with the orchestra in the great brief Andante middle movement, where the piano and orchestra trade phrases, the piano quiet and hymn-like, the orchestra loud and agitated, finally forcing the piano to sing and move (Orpheus-like, perhaps), leading to the release of a bouncy finale. Bělohlávek used a large string section for the piece, coaxing a rich European sound, heavy on bass. The orchestra sound was big for Biss, but very well managed so that the piano was always easily audible. Bělohlávek’s phrasing and weighting and shaping were excellent, making one want to hear him conduct Beethoven symphonies. The concert finished with Beethoven’s highly dramatic “Leonore” Overture No. 3, the performance fine but not out-of-this-world, which it almost needs to be with this over familiar piece. Regrettable not to have Beethoven’s huge, challenging Große Fuge, as originally announced for this concert, which would have made a fine balance with the Harbison, metaphysical and daring after the interlude of the lyric piano concerto.

Charles Warren

About Charles Warren

Charles Warren studied literature and music formally and now teaches film
history and analysis at Boston University and in the Harvard Extension School.
He is the author of “T.S. Eliot on Shakespeare,” and edited and contributed to
the volumes “Beyond Document: Essays on Nonfiction Film” and “Jean-Luc Godard’s ‘Hail Mary:’ Women and the Sacred in Film.”

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