The barn at Tannery Pond is particularly well suited to cello music — a kind of cello-within-a-cello, the musical equivalent to the old literary framing device, maybe. The instrument’s range and woody timbre are particularly appealing, even restful, resting on the ear’s most sensitive range of pitches, so it is no wonder cellists seek out such acoustics, or do things like making arrangements for 6, 8, or 10 cellos. In fact listening in the Tannery barn gives one the overwhelming urge to make music in it, even if just laying down a few purple chords on the piano — in that way perhaps Rachmaninoff is particularly well suited to the barn too. The audience did seem thrilled by Haimovitz’s and O’Riley’s playing of the young Rachmaninoff’s sonata in G minor. Rightfully enough, it was the sort of full blooded and full bodied (figuratively speaking, the musicians bodily movements were in fact very restrained) interpretation of Rachmaninoff that doesn’t spoil easily. They did take certain risks, though, over and above those of choosing such unplayable chamber music, O’Riley especially coming into his own in this sonata, which is really more of a duet between equals. His piano style seemed more at home with this kind of music than pure accompaniment, which is an art in itself, partly because he seemed more easy with the dynamic of two equals playing together, something sounding more like a trio or a contrapuntal quartet.
The Boston Symphony Orchestra is up and running and sounding very good after its holiday time off. New York Philharmonic music director Alan Gilbert opened the winter season with a concert series beginning January 10th. Best of all was the opening work, Henri Dutilleux’s Métaboles of 1965, a piece in five movements played without pause for large orchestra, with much brass and percussion, harp and celesta. The piece is listenable and attractive, rich and serious, and full of musical wit. It asks and rewards an audience’s focus and concentration, which came about well on this occasion. The presentation made a case for what has often occurred to me, that challenging or relatively new work often goes over best when placed first on a program — people tend to be fresh and attentive and open. Métaboles proceeds by constant change and transformation of basic material, and one finds oneself every few minutes, taken unawares, as it were, in quite new territory — a new realm of orchestral color, of breadth of phrase, of rhythm — all of which has grown seamlessly out of what proceeded. The music sounds at moments like Messiaen or Stravinsky, but moves with the mercurial quality of Elliott Carter, or Mozart. Gilbert and the orchestra put the work across with freshness and commitment.
The Boston Symphony played a few brilliant concerts in the shed in this anniversary year — not least Charles Dutoit’s two days of Berlioz, Beethoven, and Tchaikovsky, but the real excitement came from Ozawa Hall, as the TMC Fellows played with the full excitement of youth in a series of demanding concerts, all weighted towards the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, in consistently stimulating and coherent programs, divided between the regular TMC schedule and the Festival of Contemporary Music. This was, in addition, the most satisfying FCM since the Elliott Carter Tribute, because the selection of composers not only had its own coherence in Oliver Knussen’s experience and taste
These last weeks there was French music everywhere. An excellent program of alternating Debussy and Messiaen songs at Tanglewood with the Tanglewood Fellows, William Bolcom and Joan Morris at Mohawk Trail Concerts, and a Bastille Day performance of Tartuffe the Imposter at Shakespeare and Company. A lot of ink has been spilled describing, defining, perhaps destroying what is called “French style.” Bad pedagogy of this sort tries to get you to do something less than what you would normally do with a phrase if it were not French music. There is much pontificating about accuracy in the pronouncing of the language. French singers that I have known seem much more concerned with the flow of the language and the connectedness of it. Because a piece of music is easy on the ear does not mean it is less affecting for the heart.
Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921) is, like his friend Franz Liszt, an exemplary subject for the Bard Summer Music Festival: his world was large, and he was vitally connected with it. He was recognized as an important composer—the most important French composer—through most of his maturity. He studied with important teachers. He had many friends, many enemies, and many students. His musical output was encyclopaedic. Uncharacteristically for a French composer, he wrote in virtually every form there was to write in. His compositions are in many cases linked to prominent contemporary issues in politics, the arts, and science. He prepared an historical edition of the works of Rameau and revived works by Lully and Charpentier.
Do we live in a golden age of romantic conducting? Last summer I praised Christoph Eschenbach’s performance of Brahms Fourth Symphony for its vivid projection of every nuance, phrase-shape, and color, and last week I enthused about Miguel Harth-Bedoya’s high-tension drama in Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. Now comes Andris Nelsons, a potential future BSO music director, bringing his own brand of physical activism to the podium in order to micro-manage the details of Brahms’ Second Symphony and Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms. Afterwards, as one enraptured audience member accurately pointed out, “He knew exactly what he wanted from each measure, and got it!” Compare this with James Levine’s comment on the conductor’s role in a performance (I’m paraphrasing): if you work the nuances out in rehearsal, you really do not need to do much more than show the beat. Of course, rehearsal time at Tanglewood is limited, what with three different programs to present every weekend; so Nelsons’ vividly demonstrative mimetics may be the most efficient way to birth a performance capable of reaching the back row of the Shed. This is Mr. Nelsons’ usual modus operandi (attested by You Tube videos) and it clearly delights both musicians and audiences.
This concert was without a doubt one of the great events of the season, whether in Boston or New York, and certainly a high point in the BSO’s unexpectedly patchy year, at least as far as guest conductors were concerned, which seemed almost miraculous on paper, given the short notice allowed by James Levine’s final health setback, but in practice greatly curtailed by the cancellation of some the most distinguished conductors. Riccardo Chailly’s coronary ailment forced him to cancel his two concerts and effectively put him out of the running for the empty music directorship. Andris Nelsons rather strangely decided to go on paternal leave barely more than a month before his scheduled concert. Ill-health made it necessary for Kurt Masur, one of the great interpreters of the Missa Solemnis, to back out of his engagement while already in rehearsal. It was, to say the least, reassuring to find Esa-Pekka Salonen appearing as scheduled with violinist Leila Josefowicz in an advanced stage of expectancy, much to the delight of her many fans in the audience.
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.”