The Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, under the direction of Benjamin Zander, kicked off its 35th season Thursday evening with three performances of an all-Russian program. The concert took place in Harvard University’s Sanders Theatre, a performance space that’s rich history is matched by its reverberant acoustics.
First on the program was Glinka’s Overture to Ruslan & Ludmila. The opera, as a whole, was written from 1837-1842 and faced an unfortunate premiere, due to illnesses of the cast. Since then, the overture has become much more popular than the opera itself, perhaps due to the Russian culture’s preference of Italian music over Russian in the mid-1800s. The Boston Philharmonic’s rendition of the overture was full of the gusto that 19th century Russian music deserves. The clarity of the strings, led by concertmistress Joanna Kurkowicz, was like the workings of a finely-tuned Swiss clock. Melodically, each phrase throughout the ensemble seemed to grow increasingly expressive through Maestro Zander’s clear ideas of their structure. The piece is in clear sonata form and, although it is short in breadth, it provided an exciting start to the concert.
Next came Prokofiev’s Second Piano Concerto, featuring Chinese pianist Jue Wang. The work was written by a budding composer in his early 20s and received extremely polarizing views at its premiere. One critic called it “a cacophony of sounds that has nothing in common with civilized music,” while another proclaimed that it would take ten years for the composer to be applauded in the European tradition. The work is one of the most difficult pieces in the repertoire, arguably greater than other war horses (Rachmaninov’s Third comes to mind). It is easy to understand why the concerto is not played often – the number of pianists who can actually play it are limited! With this being said, it is unfortunate that Zander programmed the piece to be played just a few months after the Cliburn Competition, one of the most followed international piano competitions in the world. At the Cliburn, two of the six finalists performed Prokofiev’s Second as their final’s concerto repertoire. Both of these performances received internet broadcasts, Youtube streaming, and media publicity. Thus, it was somewhat difficult not to compare Mr. Wang’s BPO debut with these competitors (namely, silver medalist Beatrice Rana’s stunningly cold and stylistic performance of the work).
The concerto begins with a series of slow, pizzicato notes in the strings, followed by a meandering accompaniment pattern in the left hand of the piano. Over this pattern, Mr. Wang played the hauntingly beautiful melody that dominates the first movement. His playing was sensitive and beautiful but not necessarily stylistic, perhaps overly cautious. Even as the movement rose to a formidable cadenza, the stylistic aspect improved but remained too concerned with the music’s structure rather than the “colossale” quality that Prokofiev writes into the score.
Moving onto the second movement, both the orchestra and soloist were given a chance to show off their technical chops in a near-perfect flurry of perpetual notes. It is this movement, along with the third that are sometimes considered to be intermezzi – the length of the two movements together is still far less than the first and fourth movements. The third movement (actually marked “Intermezzo”), was extremely well conceived and executed. Until the end of the movement, the piano and orchestra contain snippets of harsh, dissonant thematic material. The dry, sardonic quality of Prokofiev’s writing was immediately apparent in Mr. Wang’s interpretation and there was a compellingly thoughtful structure to the movement, accumulating in intensity and brashness at the very end.
The last movement showcases the genius behind Prokofiev’s ideas of tonality and orchestration, as well as his demand for unstoppable virtuosity in the piano. The movement begins in a flurry of octaves and jumps from the upper range of the keyboard as impetuously as a hammer striking a nail. After a settling of these initial gestures, the pianist plays a new theme that is reminiscent of the first movement’s melody, and is imitated by the winds. Just after a final cadenza, Prokofiev writes a series of G-minor to A-major triads and A-flat to D minor triads, creating a whirlwind of dissonance before hammering out one final G in both the piano and orchestra, marking the end of the piece. As in the third movement, Mr. Wang’s conception of the movement was apparent and well-achieved. His sense of pulse never strayed, as if the finest army were marching (or, rather, stomping) into war. After an extended and well-deserved applause, Maestro Zander invited the soloist to perform an encore, which was introduced as “a piece by another Russian composer.” Embraceable You by George Gershwin floated ethereally throughout the hall like a ribbon undulating through air. This encore performance certainly won over even more hearts, as Mr. Wang received another rousing applause.
The program was concluded by Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 in E minor. It is a work that has remained an audience favorite for over a century and has even pervaded the popular music world. Like the Fourth Symphony, the Fifth seems to be a journey from the darkness of fate to the majesty of triumph, soaring with beautiful melodies and rich orchestration. The sound and meld of the ensemble was astounding and the expression of each performer was boundless. The only criticism is of the Maestro, himself. Zander seemed set on his tempi and had obviously thought them through with utmost care. Consistently, however, these tempi felt entirely too slow, at times laborious. Again, the ensemble rose to the occasion and made music of the highest quality with what they were given – at times, the slower tempi even added a heightened sense of clarity. Too often, though, the energy became stuck with an unwillingness to move forward.
As a whole, the BPO’s season kickoff was highly successful. Zander has spent 35 years building this orchestra into a world-renown group. Later in the season, the BPO has programmed a variety of pieces, from Bartok to Brahms to Ravel. It’s a group in the peak of their potential, not to be missed!
Note: I also posted this concert review on wherearewenowmusic.com, a blog devoted to reshaping ‘classical’ music into a 21st century art by emphasizing smart musicianship, management, marketing, and entrepreneurship. Check it out!
Refined. Sublime. Pure.
These were the first three words I used after last night’s concert at Symphony Hall in Boston. DCINY presented the Eric Whitacre Singers under the direction of Mr. Whitacre himself. Initially, when I realized I would be going to the show, I had mixed reactions: I love his music vs. it all sounds the same; he leads a wonderful ensemble vs. he is so pretentious. However, after the first piece (a Whitacre arrangement of The Star-Spangled Banner), I knew it would be a concert to remember.
One thing that was especially humbling about the show was the diversity of repertoire. Of course, most of the works were Whitacre’s own, but they did have a good deal of Bach, Lauridsen, and Corigliano to keep things from sounding too monotonous. After The Star-Spangled Banner, an arrangement full of Whitacre-isms, the ensemble undertook Whitacre’s Alleluia. This piece was written within the past five years and is essentially a choral arrangement of “October,” originally for concert band. The lush, reoccurring melody translated very nicely to a choral setting and the simplicity of the words (simply “Alleluia, Amen”) allowed the audience to appreciate the music alone. Whitacre mentioned before the piece that it was written to show admiration towards the Christian religion & church architecture in Cambridge, England, where he is currently composer in residence.
Certainly one of the most interesting pieces on the program, When David Heard, provided such a deep contrast to several of the preceding pieces. Whitacre explained that his intent for the piece was to create a profound sense of sorrow, mourning, and shock through the words (II Samuel 18:33) and music.
When David heard that Absalom was slain
He went up into his chamber over the gate and
wept, and thus he said: my son, my son, O Absalom
my son, would God I had died for thee!
By repeating the words “my son,” and allowing the melodic lines to integrate into each other, the sorrow and depth of the work could be felt throughout Symphony Hall. The richness of each voice and the clarity of the polyphony added to the effect. After the final pitch faded, there were several full seconds of meditative silence as the audience took a collective breath.
Another of the most memorable moments of the night came during JS Bach’s Come sweet death, arranged by Edwin London. During this piece, the Whitacre Singers sang through the original chorale once before repeating and slowing the notes down in order to take each measure out of context. It allowed each individual singer to sing at his/her own pace, within the given structure of measures and ending at a selected cadence point. During this thick cluster of melting notes, the performers utilized their arms to create various gestures to show where they were within the phrase. The piece ended with a single, unison note which decrescendo-ed effortlessly into silence.
Next, the group did another Whitacre piece called Animal Crackers, a set of pieces based off of Ogden Nash’s animal-based poems. Each of these short poems were definitely crowd pleasers, mainly for Whitacre’s creative version of text painting and the texts themselves:
The panther is like a leopard,
Except it hasn’t been peppered.
Should you behold a panther crouch,
Prepare to say Ouch.
Better yet, if called by a panther,
I don’t mind eels,
except as meals,
and the way they feels.
The concert’s last programmed piece was a Whitacre arrangement of a Depeche Mode song (Whitacre explained the he always dreamed of being the fifth member of Depeche Mode). After thunderous applause, the group had no choice but to proceed with (not one, but) two encores. The first, a Moses Hogan tune, and the second, Sleep. As soon as he began conducting the first bar of Sleep, the audience gasped with excitement — this was the only piece of the night that many consider among his “ultra-popular” works (the others being Lux Aurumque and Water Night). Their performance of this staple was of CD quality, prompting another extended standing ovation.
As for the performance as a whole, I was blown away by the grace and clarity of the 28-voice ensemble. There were many times when the fine tuning of dissonances created such beautiful overtones, that chills visibly ran from one audience member to the next. Most of these moments, capitalized by Elin Thomas, lead soprano, were breathtaking. Because of these moments, by the end of the night, my qualms with Whitacre & his music seemed trivial. It was an experience that won’t be forgotten. Like him or not, if ever you find the chance, go see this wonderful ensemble!
This season marks the 198th concert season of the Handel & Haydn Society in Boston, making the ensemble one of the oldest performing arts organizations in the country. Through diverse programming of Baroque and Classical repertoire, the group prides itself on the use of period instruments, performed at the highest artistic standards.This past weekend, the group provided a very entertaining afternoon of Mozart’s Masonic Funeral Music and Clarinet Concerto in A, as well as Beethoven’s 7th Symphony. The latter, which possibly attracted the most amount of people, is a piece that has a history with the Handel and Haydn Society. Perhaps because of its popularity, a few years after the work’s original premiere, the Handel & Haydn Society commissioned Beethoven to write an Englsih oratorio for their 1824-1825 season. A Viennese newspaper was even cited at the time as listing several anticipated compositions, the H&H’s oratorio being one of them. Unfortunately, Beethoven (though delighted by the demand for his music in America) was unable to fulfill the commission due to his failing health.
The first piece performed was one that Mozart wrote soon after becoming a Mason in 1785, and was probablycomposed for a memorial service of two fellow members. Richard Egarr, the program’s conductor, entered the stage and engaged the audience with a short speech about the first two pieces. “Don’t worry — the Funeral Music that we’re about to play is dark… but short,” he said. Indeed, the music was dark for Mozart, but it offered a depth that immediately interested the audience. The woodwinds were on point for this piece, creating somewhat of a dialogue between their melodic lines and the strings’.
Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto in A was written for Mozart’s musician friend (and fellow Mason) Anton Stadler. The two first met during weekly salon-visits that involved music and conversation. Because of Stadler’s fascination with the lower range of the clarinet, he came to own a basset clarinet, which allows the player to play four half steps lower. Mozart jumped at the opportunity to write for this instrument and the result was the Concerto in A Major.
The piece is very melodic & follows the Classical era’s ideals of concerto form. The second movement was the most memorable, with its lush melodies and effortless ornamentations. The basset clarinetist, Eric Hoeprich, seemed to capture the elegance of the Classical mood during this movement, while still retaining his own style of interpretation. The last movement of the piece, a rondo, returned to the lightness of the first and allowed Hoeprich to show off his virtuosity.
After an extended intermission, Egarr walked onto the stage and began Beethoven’s 7th in attacca style, which suddenly hushed the applause for his entrance. The piece was originally composed in 1812 and premiered alongside the 8th Symphony. It is a piece that has been successful since it’s debut, most likely for the memorable melodies and dance-like movements. Wagner even described it as an “apotheosis of the dance.” The performance of it was deserving of the wholehearted standing ovation it received. The interpretation contained depth but was always energetic, moving forward, as in many of Mozart’s compositions. Even Beethoven spoke of his dream “to go to Vienna and receive the spirit of Mozart,” which he fulfilled. In Mozart’s music, he found a sense of dramatic clarity — which can certainly describe the 7th Symphony.
Harvard University and the Silk Road Project have shared a partnership during the past few years in an attempt to bring people of different backgrounds together to educate and inspire others. Led by Yo-Yo Ma, the group seeks to engage communities through discussion and music making to create an “imagination platform.” This past weekend, the Mahindra Humanities Center of Harvard hosted a panel discussion entitled “Cultural Citizenship,” which involved performances by the Silk Road Ensemble. The discussion revolved around ideas of culture — how one’s cultural citizenship can be stronger than political or even social citizenship. Yo-Yo was quick to point out that the goal of the Silk Road Project is to bring together different cultures in creating music that is uniquely theirs. “To do this, each of us must come to the table already knowing something, already having a foundation in our own background,” he explained. His statement fostered much discussion from the other panelists (Homi & Jacqueline Bhabha, Diane Sorensen, and members of the Silk Road Ensemble), who explained how each has allowed his/her cultural background to help foster who they’ve become. This “foundation” that Yo-Yo spoke of comes with a willingness to tweak around the edges, while trusting that it’s essence will naturally remain constant.
It was a discussion that resonated with most all who were in attendance, and one that should be fostered by people in any part of the world. The Silk Road Ensemble went on to perform two numbers — some gypsy music and a large-ensemble piece. It is a group that has certainly bought into the idea of cross-cultural exchange and inclusiveness.
—Giancarlo Guerrero to the Nashville Symphony during a rehearsal of Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 5, when relaying a conversation he had with some musicians during the last two weeks while on tour with the Russian National Orchestra.
There’s an old saying that the entire essence of a piece of music can be contained within the first note. I’ve only attended a few performances where this saying holds up, and luckily, one of those times was Tuesday night. Lately, Boston University has been doing a lot to promote performances of new works. The PR department of their College of Fine Arts is also doing a lot to ensure that these concerts are well attended.
Tuesday night, the school hosted the JACK Quartet, a group of internationally-known artists who seek to broaden and diversify the potential audience for new music while working with a variety of composers. A complete bio for the JACK Quartet can be found here. The group began the show with Georg Friedrich Haas’s 5th String Quartet, a surprise antiphonal work with each performer in a different corner of the room. Immediately from the first pitch, the difficulties of such a setup were understood but not audibly, as the balance of the group was so well done that it immediately became an experience, not just a piece of music. We, the listeners, were inside a perfectly molded sound, whether that sound be overtone chords or series of beat patterns/composite rhythms. According to the composer, the work came out of “the attempt to combine individual events with one another so densely that they blended into a unified totality, in which the individual contribution of each single instrument was dissolved.” The fact that Haas then places each musician in a different corner of the room makes the process much more difficult, but the effect paid off.
"Tier," by German composer Enno Poppe, was yet another work that truly showcased the JACK Quartet’s ability to create an experience immediately from the first sound. It is a work with extreme difficulty, both rhythmically and technique-wise. Beginning with a loud slapped string, the music becomes a swirl of ornamentations and cuttingly-precise rhythms. JACK’s ability to create perfectly molded harmonic effects and nuanced sounds within their extended technique was breathtaking, in the least. They had the clarity of the finest performances of Mozart, but were playing music infinitely more difficult and complex.
The group’s third piece, String Quartet No. 7 by Italian composer Salvatore Sciarrino (currently in residency at BU), was a piece characterized by it’s opening inscriptions: “with penetrating simplicity” and “widely summoning.” The start of the piece consisted of two downward glissandi, which get augmented in length and dynamic until an entire transformation of timbre. The glissandi, almost organically, turn into harmonic glissandi, tremolos beneath the bridge of the instrument, sul pont, and other intricacies of extended technique string playing. Sciarrino created a surge of intensity by combining all of these elements to create a thick mass of intricate rhythms & pitches. The climax of the piece was towards the end and was brooding with both inner and external force, causing more than half of the audience to be on the edge of their seats for the final pitches.
The show ended with a multi-movement work by Roger Reynolds, whose compositional style seems to have gone from electronic to more consonant(but not necessarily tonal), acoustical mediums. The Pulitzer Prize-winning composer’s not forgotten (2007-2010) is a collection of memories and perceptions that remain in his mind. Of these memories are the music of Xenakis, Takemitsu, and Elliott Carter; Zen gardens of Kyoto; and Giverny, France. Each movement had a unique compositional element that the JACK Quartet capitalized on and shifted to/from in attacca style. One movement comes to mind in which each musician used the wood of their instrument for repetitive percussive effects, creating a somewhat minimalist rhythmic soundscape.
By the end of the performance, the audience had no choice but to reward these four men with extended applause. Among music lovers, there are many who are antagonists towards modern music. Even if these people attended the JACK Quartet’s performance, they had no choice but to recognize good messengers of art. For those of us who wholeheartedly appreciate modern music… we had been wanting to reward the group since the very gesture of their first note. I would highly recommend seeing this group if you get the chance.
Sanders Theater at Harvard has had some fantastic events this past month, including a Renee Fleming masterclass a couple of weeks ago and a performance by the Boston Chamber Music Society. Last night’s concert of Mahler’s 6th symphony was no exception to this list of memorable events. The Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, a semi-professional orchestra, prides itself on bringing big repertoire to the ears of classical music lovers and casual listeners. The format of each concert exhibits this, as the first forty minutes of every concert begin with a full discussion of the works that will be performed. Last night, Benjamin Zander provided a very thorough talk about the form of Mahler’s 6th Symphony, some historical background, and the piece’s legacy.
Mahler’s 6th, one of the most formal of his symphonies, was also discussed as being the most personal. In the first movement alone, the use of cowbells, leitmotif-esque gestures, and beautiful themes (one representing his wife), create the start of a multi-faceted experience. The listener can easily imagine Mahler’s fear of fate juxtaposed with the love for his wife and the solitude of the Swiss countryside. The symphony is sometimes labeled as his Tragic Symphony, an ironic title due to the fact that it was composed during some of the happiest moments of his life. As in much of his work, however, the music seems to foretell the future (in Kindertotenlieder (“Songs on the Death of Children”), for example, he finished the work four years before the unexpected death of his four-year-old daughter). In the case of the Sixth Symphony, this foretelling is especially apparent during the final movement with three “hammer blows,” each signaling three events of fate.
Going back to the first movement, though, the listener is immediately offered a few distinct motives. Among these are a driving rhythm articulated in the timpani and a “fate” motive based on an A-Major chord turning into an A-minor chord. Also within this exposition comes the theme he wrote for his wife. A bit of trivia about the “Alma theme”: Mahler is quoted as telling his wife “I’ve tried expressing you in a theme. I don’t know whether I’ve succeeded or not, but you’ll have to put up with it.” This seems a noble and loving gesture, except for the fact of a similarity with the melodic line of another piece of music - an aria in Emil Kaiser’s opera Der Trompeter von Sackingen. Mahler had strong ties to Kaiser, as they both conducted at Olomouc in Moravia around the same time; thus, there is a strong chance Mahler was familiar with his music. The words to Kaiser’s aria: “God keep you, it would have been too lovely; God keep you, it was not meant to be.” Could this be a subconscious feeling towards Alma? The entire exposition of the first movement is repeated before drifting into a melancholic section featuring cowbells ringing off stage, perhaps serving as an homage to his summer home in Switzerland. The recapitulation is very similar to the start of the symphony, but ends happily with the Alma theme as if symbolizing love’s momentary dominance over fate.
Following this first movement, Zander chose the Scherzo movement as a follow-up. There is great debate as to which is truly the second movement, the Scherzo or the Andante? Here is what we know: the autograph score puts the Scherzo as the second movement. However, when Mahler began rehearsing the piece for it’s premiere, he decided the Andate movement should go before the Scherzo & released a revised edition with this change. Then, in 1919, Alma Mahler specifically instructed conductor Willem Mengelberg to perform the Scherzo first. He followed her instructions, but other conductors insisted upon the Andante as the second movement. Today, the issue is hotly contested & it can be performed either way.
The Andate movement offers such a different mood than the rest of the symphony. It features soaring melodies & a delicate sense of counterpoint. It’s beauty likens that of the Adagietto of his Symphony No. 5 - an outpouring of emotion & a climax that many cite as one of the most beautiful moments in all of music.
With the last movement comes fate’s hammer blows. Mahler originally wanted these blows to sound “brief and mighty, but dull in resonance and with non-metallic character (like the fall of an axe).” The BPO used a very large lead pipe striking an unknown surface in addition to a simultaneous bass drum strike. Each of these blows, quite overwhelming in sound, represents three blows of fate towards an unnamed hero. Several years after writing the 6th, these blows came loud and strong in Mahler’s life. The first was the loss of his daughter, the second was the loss of his job, and the third was the loss of his health due to a heart condition (a condition that eventually took his life). Mahler’s own paranoia is the intriguing thing about all of this. Apparently, during the premiere of the work, he was very nervous to conduct the third blow & after revising the work, he took out the third blow completely. Perhaps the example of the Kindertotenlieder made him believe in the power of the music to predict his own life’s future. While some orchestras still do leave out this final hammer blow, the BPO allowed it to resonant loud and strong before the orchestra’s fff entrance on a final A-minor chord.
Since this piece has such a rich context and story involved, it is interesting to note that it is one of the least performed of his symphonies. While researching a bit for this post, I noticed that Benjamin Zander originally recorded the symphony in Andante/Scherzo order. Personally, I would have preferred hearing it this way, as the Andante provides just enough time to regroup after the gargantuan Sonata-Allegro movement. The Scherzo would then provide a transition into the finale, while reminding us of several motives from the first movement. As for the performance, it was quite good for a semi-professional orchestra. Some mistakes were glaringly noticeable including several intonation issues, inconsistencies within the violin section, a tuba player whose passages consistently sounded like series of wrong notes, a missed entrance in the cymbals, and a horn section that lacked focus & boldness. The hammer blows were very well done, as was the low string & contrabassoon features. I was quite glad as to how well the lecture at the start of the concert went over. The audience was made up of musicians and non-musicians alike, so hearing the context of the work before it was performed certainly allowed for a greater understanding and appreciation of the this great piece. Congratulations to Zander and his orchestra!