After the stunning concert with Simon Rattle leading the Berliner Philharmoniker at Boston’s Symphony Hall—Pierre Boulez’s scintillating Éclat followed (without intermission) by Mahler’s black sheep Symphony No. 7—I couldn’t stop shaking. There’s a lot of good music in Boston, but this was different—on a whole other level. And the audience knew it, felt it. Wasn’t it just what we needed to hear after the bruising election? People were not only cheering but weeping and hugging each other.
One hoped and expected there would be performances of Pierre Boulez pieces in Boston this season to honor this great musician who died last winter. The Berlin Philharmonic, hardly a local group, will play one piece on its visit here in November. I don’t see anything else on the horizon. So, many thanks to Boston Musica Viva, our fine contemporary music ensemble now in its 48th year, for opening its season with Boulez’s perhaps most significant work, Le Marteau sans maître (The Hammer without a Master, 1954-57).
As always, I seek some unifying subtext for the offerings, and this year the quest was, at face value, quite simple: birds. An outdoor avian sculpture and a birder challenge in the program booklets left no doubt of the “theme” intended. However, the degree of suggestion varied from the most obvious (Rossini’s The Thieving Magpie) to the surreal (Sondheim’s Sweeny Todd) and merely suggestive in the others. Rossini’s rarely performed dramatic comedy, La gazza ladra (The Thieving Magpie) was the most interesting production this season. While I would never concur with Toscanini’s equating Rossini’s talent to that of Mozart (in quality and not merely in youthful quantity), the mix of comedy and high drama certainly had pretensions to some of Mozart’s great operatic moments. Perhaps, Don Giovanni and Die Zauberflöte served as models for the young composer; he even manages some near literal quotes of these works in the second act.
The Boston Lyric Opera has left its long-time, unsatisfactory home in Boston’s Shubert Theater. This season each production will be mounted in a different space, and the Boston Globe reports that BLO has joined some other local theatrical groups to bid for ongoing use of the fine Colonial Theater (now owned by Emerson College) when it is restored and reopens in a year or so—seems an outcome to be wished for. Meanwhile, BLO has started its current season with Bizet’s Carmen in the Opera House on Washington Street, once home to Sarah Caldwell’s highly creative Opera Company of Boston, in recent years home of the Boston Ballet and site of a never-ending stream of very popular traveling Broadway musical productions. The Opera House is a grand space with good acoustics, a broad stage, sizeable orchestra pit, and adequate lobby space on two levels. It is good to see and hear opera staged here once again.
Shakespeare-inspired opera, ballet, and tone poems formed the frame-work for this colorfully varied program, somehow containing the non-Shakespearean and infrequently heard Saint-Saens “Egyptian” Concerto. A charitable stretch might imagine a reference to “Anthony and Cleopatra,” but thematic consistency is not necessary for an interesting afternoon of music.
Gil Shaham’s double appearance at Tanglewood made a powerful statement: that he was the master of both ends of the spectrum of virtuosity, with the implication that every other challenge would fall somewhere in between. On the one hand, there was a visceral, mercurial, spontaneous and totally commanding performance of the Tchaikovsky concerto, a work whose technical challenges are so great that it was supposed to have been declared unplayable by its intended first performer.
A most welcome contribution from Ralph P. Locke, Professor Emeritus of at the Eastman School of Music, an unpublished letter to the editor of the New York Times, directed my attention to a review and an article by Zachary Woolfe concerning recent productions he has seen in France of Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail and Così fan tutte. The content of these articles will be clear enough from Professor Locke’s letter and his own commentary.
Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is dark, dark musical theatre. A vengeful barber returns to Victorian London, slits the throats of those who have wronged him and with his accomplice turns their bodies into the stuffing of meat pies. Todd’s London is as menacing as he is …
“There’s a hole in the world
Like a great black pit
And it’s filled with people
Who are filled with shit
And the vermin of the world inhabit it …”