Music / The Berkshire Review in Boston

Music Small and Large, Boston, Fall 2009

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John Harbison, Composer
John Harbison, Composer/Conductor

Boston is full of excellent musicians who give concerts in various configurations of established chamber music groups, early and new music groups, and orchestras of various kinds other than the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and of course in solo recital. For musical performance and presentation of a great range of music, we are blessed in Boston. In early October I attended my first concert by the Chameleon Arts Ensemble, playing at the Goethe Institute on Beacon Street, where the large high-ceilinged double parlor makes a great venue for music, with a rich, resonant, vivid sound right to the back, though with small chairs all on one level and on this occasion a packed house, it was hard to see. I was attracted by the program, featuring the Debussy Cello Sonata and Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time. I just wanted to hear these works—it had been a while. It was a splendid concert, and too bad for me just coming to the Chameleon group, which has been thriving here for a dozen years. The concert opened with a Mozart violin/viola Duo, K. 423 in G Major, beautifully played by Kristofer Tong and Scott Woolweaver. This elegant, intricate music made a good opening to the rest of the program. Mozart mattered to Chopin and to the French in a way that Beethoven and others in the Germanic tradition did not.

Debussy wrote his great Cello/Piano Sonata toward the end of his life, during the First World War, as part of a projected series of six sonatas for instruments in various combinations, of which he completed only three. The Cello Sonata is a relatively short three-movement work, highly inventive, full of variety in sound and feeling, melancholy and serious at moments, manic and free at others. For a piece in D minor, it offers a good deal of joy and vitality. Cellist Rafael Popper-Keizer did not give as flexible and light-on-its-feet a performance as some others do. He has a dark and full-bodied sound and tends to stay in tempo, earthbound in a way. But the performance was very effective, organic, showing the work to be all of a piece, seeming one unbroken arc from beginning to end, without muting the variety in it. Gloria Chien on piano produced a big sound and much color, exactly right for this music, as for the Messiaen. One really wanted to hear this piece played again, and after it, it was a bit hard to take Takemitsu’s “And Then I Knew ‘Twas Wind” for flute, viola, and harp, a thin and superficial piece, though impeccably played by Deborah Boldin, flute (Artistic Director of Chameleon), Scott Woolweaver again on viola, and Anna Reinersman, harp. Takemitsu has written some marvelous music, but this piece could not really follow the Debussy. It made one long to hear Debussy’s late Sonata for the same combination of instruments.

The Quartet for the End of Time got a powerful performance that left me in a transported state such as I have rarely experienced. Popper-Keizer and Chien returned on cello and piano, with Gary Gorczyca, clarinet, and Gabriela Diaz, violin. Messiaen wrote this piece and had it first performed in a German prisoner-of-war camp during World War II. The piece is large in size, in sound, and in spirit, and so was this performance. The movement titles reflect Messiaen’s great passions, birds and Christianity. But one can just listen. It is hard to miss the bird sounds, but not necessary to think about apocalyptic angels and Jesus. One feels put into touch with something beyond one, but more like divinity as conceived in the Vedas, or the enlightened consciousness of Buddhism, or the ultimate powers of music itself, than anything specifically Christian. The effect is one of deeply altering the nervous system and the understanding, of expanding time or freeing one from time, of making the world, as one walks down the street afterwards, look different, full of a new light, everything with a new resonance behind it, everything ceasing to matter as it did and mattering much more in a new way. Messiaen’s eight movements adding up to about an hour—the four instruments playing in unison and dancing furiously; the solo clarinet starting over and over for a whole movement with bird cries or some cry of eloquent, elemental life; sonorous lyrical movements building slowly—all work to make us feel past music is summed up and transfigured and future music is contained here. The four players put this work across with great focus and commitment. In the final movement, “Louange à l’immortalité de Jésus,” Ms. Chien provided a grand chordal shifting-earth background on the piano, and Ms. Diaz soared higher and higher in the violin register, compounding and maintaining an amazing intensity.


Arnold Schoenberg’s String Trio, like the Messiaen, was written in the 1940s, in this case in Los Angeles by a refugee from Hitler’s Europe. The Trio also summons up music of the past and transfigures it—here dances of old Vienna and the intense expressiveness and expressionism of Mahler and the first two decades of 20th-century Germanic music. The transfiguration comes in rendering everything into Schoenberg’s invented 12-tone system, which set a discipline and procedure for many composers of the next several decades, even ones with a visionary bent more like Messiaen, such as Stockhausen and Boulez, even in the end for Stravinsky himself. The 12-tone system is not really audible, not distinguishable to the ear from free atonality, but it imposes an ordering of notes and an ordering of variations in the ordering, so that music must come of a fusion of feeling and imagination with strict rules. Music is different in this condition. Mathematics, so to speak, releases expression that would not otherwise have come. Such is the ideal, at any rate.

The String Trio, surely one of the triumphs of the 12-tone system, was featured in a chamber concert on November 1st given by Emmanuel Music in the very pleasant Library of Emmanuel Church on Newbury Street. Ms. Diaz and Mr. Popper-Keizer from the Chameleon concert played again, with Margaret Dyer, viola, and gave the best imaginable performance of this piece. They fully conveyed its humanity. The piece has something of a narrative, starting with a disorienting, even violent, climax, said to reflect Schoenberg’s own recent experience of actually dying and then being revived with an injection directly to the heart (for this we hear a loud 3-note pizzicato chord on the violin). There are many short sections very different each from each in mood, sound, and rhythm, remembering kinds of music, inventing new kinds, passing at once into an afterlife and a new life on earth. The Emmanuel players fully responded to the variety here, relishing the beauties, the anger, the uncertainty, the wit, inviting everybody in, holding the attention with every note, every gesture.

Since the death of Craig Smith two years ago, composer John Harbison has served as Acting Artistic Director for Emmanuel Music, and for the 2009-10 season has devised a series of concerts of music by Schoenberg and Haydn, two Viennese masters of different eras, both of whom had famous pupils (Beethoven, Berg, Webern…) and had great general influence on the style and development of music. Both, in their art, were this-worldly figures—if one thinks of Beethoven or Messiaen—despite their writing some great religious music. And the Emmanuel series is serving to bring out Schoenberg’s this-worldly side—playful, humorous, understanding many things that everybody feels. The November 1st concert included the witty Canons (Boston 1934), written during Schoenberg’s year of teaching in Boston, for small ensemble—the String Trio players and Peggy Pearson, oboe; Ein Stelldichein from 1905, for a bit larger and more colorful group—Pearson, Bruce Creditor, clarinet, Diaz, Popper-Keizer, and Brett Hodgdon, piano—often making one think of Debussy; and the rather forbidding Three Songs, Berlin 1933, sung by mezzo Pamela Dellal, with Mr. Hodgdon.

Haydn’s piano trios of the 1780s and ’90s are wonderfully free, even experimental works. The November 1st concert included one in A-flat major from the 1780s, with a very moving Adagio, played by Ms. Diaz and Messrs. Popper-Keizer and Hodgdon. That concert concluded with a Haydn string quartet in D minor with the 1st violin part transcribed for oboe and played by Ms. Pearson. The sonority and the consistent middle-level style worked quite well just after the Schoenberg Trio, letting one down from an intense summing up and pushing of the borders, into the ground of Viennese classicism from which (among other things) Schoenberg sprang. Pure strings at this point would have been unbearable—I loved hearing the oboe. Emmanuel’s concert a week later, November 8th, featured three more Haydn piano trios, a 1790s set dedicated to a woman musician Haydn worked with in London. Rose Mary Harbison, violin, and David Russell, cello, played all three with three different, highly able pianists: John Harbison, who plays with strong rhythmic definition and makes big, clear phrases; Emmanuel’s Associate Conductor Michael Beattie, who is often heard in fine harpsichord, organ, and piano accompaniments hereabouts; and composer Yehudi Wyner, a really marvelous pianist, with a beautiful tone and articulation and, of course, strong musical good sense. The affectionate and lively Haydn was interspersed with more Schoenberg: Two Songs, opus 14, very directly expressive works, attractively sung my mezzo Thea Lobo, accompanied by Mr. Wyner; the severe violin/piano Phantasy, one of Schoenberg’s last works, powerfully rendered by Rose Mary and John Harbison; and, at the end, Herzgewächse, opus 20, setting a Maeterlinck poem translated into German for dramatic coloratura soprano—who begins dark and low and suddenly leaps over and over above the staff, way above—accompanied by celesta, harmonium, and harp. Soprano Emily Hindrichs was amazing in presence and voice, and Mr. Wyner on celesta, Paul Sykes on harmonium, and Franziska Huhn on harp contributed to create the weird sound and arresting statement of this piece. The astonished audience roared approval, and the performers seemed happy to do it a second time.

Harbison continued the Haydn/Schoenberg season leading a chorus and orchestra concert in Emmanuel’s Sanctuary on November 14th. First came Schoenberg’s “Genesis” Prelude, commissioned in Los Angeles in 1945 for a suite of pieces depicting the Book of Genesis, by various composers, most of them émigrés working in film music. Schoenberg’s piece for orchestra and wordless chorus is 12-tone, the chorus sounding a bit like Hollywood, a bit like Ravel, ending with everyone singing the note “C.” Harbison proceeded without pause into a performance of Haydn’s great oratorio The Creation, which, of course, begins in C with an orchestral representation of the chaos before creation. The transition from the Schoenberg to the Haydn worked beautifully, with a brief moment of uncertainty as to which piece we were in. The juxtaposition didn’t, for me, make either composer sound different, but showed that the two were very close in ambition and imagination given the topic.

The performance of The Creation was vital and warm, Emmanuel’s medium-sized chorus sounding wonderful, as always, here singing the original German that Haydn set (Die Schöpfung), though in Britain and America the piece is often sung in English. The small orchestra played modern instruments, but with a fine sense of 18th-century style. Soprano Kendra Colton, tenor Matthew Anderson, and especially bass David Kravitz were grand as the angels who narrate in Part One the cosmic and physical creation and in Part Two the creation of animals. Haydn’s great achievement was to take the public-spirited Handel oratorio and make it into a fully symphonic work, where a sense of symphonic organization governs, and there is great imagination in the use of various instruments, sonorities, rhythms, and motives to render the stages of creation, the qualities of the animals, and so on. Part Three, with Adam and Eve, is a celebration of wedded love, no hint of the Fall. Bass Mark McSweeney was a somewhat stodgy Adam. Soprano Kristen Watson sang Eve beautifully and with considerable stage presence. She had mischief in her eye.

The Creation is wholly celebratory and positive and, for me, does not rise to the heights of the very greatest musical works because, to put it crudely, it lacks pain and suffering. The Adam and Eve music is very reminiscent of Mozart’s Magic Flute (written earlier), but only of the celebratory aspect, not the agony and ordeal that leads to and earns the celebration. The Bach Passions and B-minor Mass, the Mozart Requiem, the Missa Solemnis soar so high because the sublimity answers to a tragic sense we are not allowed to forget. Haydn’s music (the symphonies, chamber music, all of it) holds some beautiful melancholy, but not the tragic sense. The paradox is that this composer lacking—again, for me—in the greatest emotional depth is yet never boring, always good to see programmed, always a pleasure to listen to. His imagination and freedom, his wit and earthiness, his sunny splendor carry the day.


A few words on music on the grandest scale this fall. The great event of the Boston Symphony Orchestra season was to have been performance of all nine Beethoven Symphonies, in late October and early November, led by Music Director James Levine. The maestro’s back surgery resulted in his cancellation of all his appearances for the Beethoven, and the substitution of various conductors, with mixed but on the whole disappointing results. Opinions varied considerably about the performances, and, moreover, the quality of performance seemed to vary significantly day to day with repeated programs. So perhaps one more report is in order.

Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos led the 1st, 2nd, and 5th Symphonies. Michael Miller reviewed this program very favorably on this site. I heard the program on an earlier day than he, and found the 1st and 2nd Symphonies fairly lifeless (listen to recordings under Toscanini for the 1st and George Szell for the 2nd to see how much life and drama are here), but Frühbeck’s 5th on my day was powerful and effective—not the profoundest or most original of 5ths, but everybody seemed to care, they put it across. I presume that between my performance and Michael Miller’s some work was done, at least mentally, on the 1st and 2nd.

BSO Assistant conductor Julian Kuerti led the 3rd and 4th Symphonies. The 4th was charming and able. According to reliable reports, the first performance of the Eroica was roughly played and lacking in purpose. Two days later, when I heard it, the Eroica was very well played, played with refinement and power, pretty much satisfying and effective. The first movement (in three-quarter time) was a bit waltz-like in places, even suave, but grand enough on the whole. The movements all sounded of a piece. Great French horns in the trio of the Scherzo. The finale did not sound lighter than the rest, as sometimes happens. It was the serious celebration of music needed at the end of this great epic journey.

Lorin Maazel led the final two programs. Right from the start of the 6th symphony (Pastoral), one felt the power of a master conductor, summoning great concentration from everybody, playing the sections of the orchestra like a keyboard; and the piece unfolded in a natural and moving manner. The first movement of the great dance-like 7th symphony was fine, with a throbbing rhythm and tense build-up. The middle movements were all right. Then in the final movement Maazel took a ridiculously fast tempo, blurring and ruining the piece. Did this happen every night? Just a few notches slower might have worked very well (try the Karajan recording from the 1960s). I began this concert grateful to Maazel, but ended with a bad taste in my mouth.

For the final program Maazel started with a lackluster 8th. Nobody seemed to care—poor horns in the trio of the Tempo di menuetto. Haitink led a properly much more muscular 8th with BSO some years ago. Then Maazel’s 9th. The piece was there, and it is always something special to hear. But the big, dark first movement lacked in intellectual grasp and in drama. Only the return of the main theme in the recapitulation was exciting. The scherzo lacked in real tension and uncanniness. The Adagio was not fully sublime and spellbinding. The finale turned up the intensity, but was coarse, blaring, unremitting. The Tanglewood Festival Chorus, very large on this occasion, sang superbly as usual, but was induced to sound not so much like longing and joyful humanity, as a host of punishing angels. The soloists were excellent and eloquent—soprano Christine Brewer, contralto Meredith Arwady, tenor Matthew Polenzani, and, especially, bass-baritone Eike Wilm Schulte. Where was the great musical intelligence and the great soul needed to lead this piece and make it all it should be?

Things on the grand scale were set right by the visit of the Berlin Philharmonic to Boston on November 15th. (Click here to read about their New York concerts.) Sir Simon Rattle led a program featuring the Brahms 3rd and 4th Symphonies. An interesting thing about hearing all the BSO Beethoven was to realize afresh how classical a composer Beethoven is—not that he sounds like Haydn or Mozart, but even with the Eroica, Pastoral, and Ninth Symphonies with all their extra-musical suggestion, the work is spun from such chaste, even neutral thematic and motivic material and worked out with such intellectual rigor. For all the primal power and the feeling stirred, we are in an ideal musical world. The Brahms, after this, seemed lush, full of east-European and folk-ish melody, unpredictable, ready at any moment to run to heartbreak—more akin to Mahler than to Beethoven. The impression was due in large part, of course, to Sir Simon’s way with the music—romantic, probing every bit of it for feeling. I found some of the slow music a bit over-caressed, with too much tempo change, and the passacaglia finale of the 4th a bit lacking in steady relentlessness. But this is to quibble with what was in the main overpowering and convincing. The 3rd is hard to bring off, and here the first and final movements were entirely organic and perfectly shaped, for all the varying turmoil and tenderness. Under Karajan and Abbado Berlin had a transparent, sunny, multi-colored, one might say Mediterranean sound, for all the size and power. Now the orchestra is darker, dark brown I want to say, plainer, heavier, but still amazingly dexterous, able to turn on a dime, capable of great range in dynamics, able to execute big, turbulent, complex passages with excitement and clarity like no one else, the first horn and principal woodwind players—there is no other word—perfect. Between the Brahms Symphonies Rattle led Schoenberg’s Accompaniment to a Cinematographic Scene, 1930, one of the composer’s best 12-tone pieces, evolving, changing, opening out as it goes along (it was not written for an actual film, but projects some sort of ideal cinematic episode). John Harbison will lead the piece in the spring as part of Emmanuel Music’s ongoing Haydn/Schoenberg series, something to look forward to.

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