The paradox of Berlioz is that he is both quintessentially of the nineteenth-century and in many ways far ahead of his time. Grandiose, self-absorbed, at home in both Heaven and Hell (well, perhaps a bit more in Hell), operating on the largest temporal and spatial canvases, bringing together mammoth forces to speak in one voice; but also episodic and arbitrary in construction, harmonically idiosyncratic and technically suspect, bombastic, addicted to overwhelming sound spectaculars, in short, in questionable taste; in these ways he epitomizes Romanticism. All of these characteristics of his music have been noticed and pondered in attempts to come up with an evaluation of this unavoidable maverick, a figure whose closest counterpart in his own time might be Mussorgsky, or in ours, Charles Ives. Today, with post-modernism, mash-ups, the valuing of discontinuity and fragmentary statements, Berlioz rides high. He is seen as a predecessor to the liberation of tone color as an independent element of construction, as in the music of Debussy. In the past, when polished craftsmanship and solid structure were primary virtues, critics often looked askance at Berlioz’s bulky, generically ambiguous compositions. Today, we recognize the uniqueness of his vision.
Last November Mark Volpe, Managing Director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Anthony Fogg, Artistic Administrator, and members of the orchestra presented the 75th anniversary season of the festival in a low-key event, which, as relaxed and friendly as it was, brought back memories of old Boston in its restraint. No one attempted to hide his pride in this important anniversary of what is undoubtedly the key music festival in North America, but nobody did anything that would be out of place at the Somerset Club either.
The Philadelphia Orchestra always WAS the sexiest!
Back in the publicity heyday of art music and the aftermath of Toscanini, Americans knew their five orchestras. It went like this: in Boston you listened to Charles Munch for Gallic excitability. In Chicago, Reiner ruled with a heart of stone but turned out warmer central European renditions than Toscanini had. You flocked to Bernstein for eruptive passion and disreputable energy in New York. And at Severance Hall, in a state of penance, you submitted to the owlish purges of George Szell. But nothing seduced the listener so much as The Philadelphia Orchestra, under the direction of Eugene Ormandy.
Her view of the Tchaikovsky was a fraction slower than the usual ones built around the big tuttis—but all the better for the subtlety this permitted. There were literally moments when the orchestra, playing as quietly as it knew how, could not match her for delicacy. One of the mesmerizing features of Arabella Steinbacher’s stage presence was the way she swayed to the orchestra—leaning slowly to one side for several bars, then slowly back the other way for an equal number of bars—a mesmerizing dance to the orchestra’s basic pulse. It kept all eyes on her. Indeed, the absence of any sudden movements was the captivating feature of her presence. Just to lower her head and look down could be measured in the bar lines and pulse of the music. This special elegance has already been noted elsewhere in her career and and compared to the special dignity of Grace Kelly. I must say I concur. There are worse characterizations than for a violinist to be known as “Her Serene Highness.”
Mark Volpe and his organization pulled off an impressive feat in creating this season at such short notice. Former Music Director James Levine submitted his resignation only after most symphony orchestras, including the BSO, have established their programming for the next season and published it to waiting subscribers. Add to that the need to corral a feasible number of potential candidates for the open position of Music Director. The Boston Symphony’s 2011-12 is not only solid and nutritious, it is even rather exciting—apart from the added piquancy of the search. The fall will be mainly given over to guest conductors who have worked with the BSO for many years, or at least a few times in the past. The serious contenders for the permanent position will begin later on.
The Boston Symphony Orchestra opened this year’s Tanglewood season July 8th with an Italian program planned by James Levine—now resigned from Boston—and taken over pretty much intact by guest conductor Charles Dutoit. The program book declared the evening “La Prima di Tanglewood.” I would call the concert only half a success, but the best part was the second half, and the huge audience seemed very well pleased at the end.
The very short apotheosis at the end of Humperdinck’s “Hansel and Gretel” at Hubbard Hall made me think of confluences — the building, the performers, the audience. All of these were here in a gentle and honest synch. It was the most evenly cast opera I have heard in this venue. The staging was honest. The two singers in the title roles were convincing in the simplest way. They looked right, and they sounded right. In the dream sequence, which no staging can match, director Dianna Heldman brought to me a naturalness which was moving in its humility and acceptance of the place in which it was performed. The old hall itself seemed an ideal house for this reality. Nothing which Alexina Jones and Kara Cornell did as Gretel and Hansel was prolix. There was no fake childishness. Humperdinck could be said to have produced an adult’s version of what childhood is- simple tunes, good things to eat, etc. I suppose when compared to “The Magic Flute”, an opera which really is childlike, this is true. But this dead-honest production and its raptly attentive audience in the golden light of the hall made it seem a miracle. There were no weak links on stage, and there were no false steps in the staging. It was great.
1939 must have been the year neoclassic front ranks gave up on William Walton. Here was the “English Stravinsky”, who had burst forth with silvery elbow-wit in “Facade” and scandalized church officials in “Belshazzar’s Feast.” More recently, his First Symphony had transformed telegraphic rhythm into sheer motorized power, gleaming and heartless. (only the finale, composed late and omitted at the premiere, had hinted at something more sensual and cinematic) The earlier Viola Concerto had parsed-out like the cleanest Hindemith, moving because of its beauty, but bereft of the senses.