Music / The Berkshire Review in Boston

Looking Back at the Boston Winter and Spring Music Season, 2010-11

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The New England Conservatory, Boston, in a vintage postcard
The New England Conservatory, Boston, in a vintage postcard

Part I—Symphony

The winter music season in Boston made a strong beginning with James Levine leading the Boston Symphony Orchestra in what turned out to be his last set of concerts with the orchestra for the year—and perhaps forever. Levine’s spring BSO concerts were cancelled for health reasons, and, of course he has resigned as Music Director.The January program consisted of two short operas, Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle and Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex (the latter was originally intended for staging as an opera but became an “oratorio” due to production constraints—over the years the work has been fully staged many times). Levine has led Bluebeard here before, and he has a way with it. He conjured spectacular playing and strong moods from the orchestra. Alfred Dohmen sang a firm-voiced and scary Duke Bluebeard, with an air of tragedy about him, as of something he could not control overbearing him—this man who leads wives to their doom. Michelle DeYoung’s Judith was not virginal, but a mature and womanly figure seeming almost from the first to understand Bluebeard and to want to help him. Not the usual take on this material, but it worked. The singers and the huge orchestral presence, the brilliant playing of the BSO brass and winds especially, all worked to give a vivid sense of doors opening on and on—here not so much into a young woman’s new feelings and realizations as she explores a castle, but into the depths of soul of both the man and woman as they come to probe themselves and see who they really are.  Actor Ors Kisfaludy spoke the Prologue, which set a nice circus sideshow tone, putting the drama at a certain distance—then we were overwhelmed in the performance, all barriers broken down.

The Bartók really ought to have been done first, as in the original program plan, reversed at a late stage for some unexplained reason. The Stravinsky is a greater work, more complex, more concentrated, more powerful—and it fully came into its own under Levine. It would have been hard to follow this piece and performance with anything (maybe Bach). Oedipus works on many levels, with its spoken narration, male chorus, and sizeable cast of carefully delineated singing roles, all representing different attitudes to what is transpiring. The Sophoclean material, condensed and shaped by Jean Cocteau with a certain modern wryness, then rendered into human but elevated Latin by mystic Jean Daniélou, is finally really shaped and vivified by Stravinsky working at the height of his powers of invention and organization. The music drama proceeds relentlessly from the ceremonial and formal—as King Oedipus inquires into the cause of plague in the city—on to the devastating and tragic, as he discovers his own unwitting patricide and incest with his mother, now his queen, Jocasta. Oracular and prophetic voices come in along the way. Stravinsky grades the music very surely as the mood darkens and chaos opens, with marvellous new things happening at every point. Jocasta comes on the scene to inject a note of reason and speak against oracles and superstition—but the strange new sound at this point of harp and winds stirs a disturbing chthonic feeling that sticks and lasts on to the end, underpinning everything else. Here is the mother/queen, attractive, sensible, but carrying the force of the dark earth and underworld. Michelle DeYoung sang this role effectively. Lyric tenor Russell Thomas sang Oedipus beautifully and with passion, but was a bit light of voice and light in presence, at least in this company of singers and Levine’s super-vivid orchestra. Alfred Dohmen actually sounded weak in the small parts of Creon and the Messenger, perhaps saving himself for the Bartók. But bass Raymond Aceto was a splendid Tiresias, the prophet reluctant to say what he knows. Tenor Matthew Plenk was fine as the Shepherd, the humble eyewitness. The Tanglewood Festival chorus men were forceful, full of feeling, and precise. Actor Frank Langella found just the right delicate tone for the Narrator—a little distant, superior, and amused, but at the same time respectful, attuned to the dignity of the events and according them dignity.

Levine led rehearsals for the Mahler Ninth in the spring, but had to turn the concerts over to Assistant Conductor Sean Newhouse. The performance went really well, the orchestra played so magnificently. As we got well into the long first movement and later the final one, the experience thickened a bit, and one missed Levine’s tension and shaping ability. The middle movements came off well—I actually preferred Newhouse’s quicker tempo with the second to Levine’s of a few years ago. Overall one felt satisfied—one had heard the Ninth. Some call this a symphony of death—evincing trauma and terror and eventually resignation and a quiet letting-go. Perhaps this is right. In any case there is transcendence at every point and in every confrontation the symphony makes with whatever it confronts—such surprise and beauty in the writing and in the opportunity it gives for playing and expression, fully taken up on this occasion.

The BSO’s other Assistant Conductor, Marcelo Lehninger, took over Levine’s planned program with violinist Christian Tetzlaff, a great musician with whom Levine had formed an ongoing relationship for Boston—one hopes we will see Tetzlaff here again! In this program he played—unfalteringly—in every piece: a Mozart Rondo, the newly commissioned Violin Concerto by Sir Harrison Birtwistle, and, after intermission, the Bartók Second Concerto. The Birtwistle is an intense thirty-minute piece, not hard to listen to—the notes easily take shapes—but demanding of concentrated attention, and emotionally draining. The violin busily speaks and sings, never letting up, against a dark, thick orchestral background at one moment seeming foreign to the violin, at the next seeming imitative of it, or a source for it—in any case, something seems to want to swallow up the violin, or swallow up the human. After this, and even with an intermission, it was hard, for me at least, to take in another violin concerto. After such intensity, the Bartók seemed diffuse at first—but Tetzlaff, this great piece, and the orchestra drew one in and won one over. Lehninger did admirable work with the Birtwistle, and really also with the Bartók—making an admirable dramatic conclusion, for example—but with this piece I did miss Levine’s sharpness.

The final Levine program fell apart completely, though it promised to be the most interesting of the BSO’s year—major orchestral works and concertos of Mozart and Schoenberg, with pianist Maurizio Pollini featured in two pieces. Pollini cancelled due to illness, as well as Levine, and the program was changed altogether. So ended the Levine era in Boston.

The necessity of Levine giving up the Boston Symphony Orchestra is very sad for him, with his great talent and his ambitions for leading the orchestral literature. And it is a sad loss for Boston. Levine raised this orchestra to a new level. He had everyone playing with a new intensity and sense of commitment, and one felt the musicians’ pride in themselves and in the orchestra on every occasion they performed with him. Levine led great readings of Beethoven (especially the Seventh Symphony and Grosse Fuge), the Schubert Unfinished and Great C-Major Symphonies, all the Schumann and Brahms symphonies, the Tchaikovsky “Pathétique”, Dvořák Eighth, Sibelius Fourth and Fifth, Smetana’s complete Má Vlast, and, especially, all the Mahler symphonies except the Seventh—immense, complex works that Levine and the orchestra carried off with great assurance and much new insight, generating a lot of audience excitement. Very important, too, has been Levine’s survey of the modern orchestral works and concertos of Schoenberg, Bartók, Stravinsky, Messiaen, Lutosławski, Ligeti, and newly commissioned work from John Harbison, Elliott Carter, and others—challenging work presented with great mastery and made highly vivid and immediate. There were splendid opera-in-concert presentations with casts of international status—Fidelio, Les Troyens, The Flying Dutchman, Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra, Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron. The BSO is famous for playing French music, but never has it played Berlioz, Debussy, and Ravel with such elegance and passion as under Levine. One wishes the BSO all the best in finding its footing with another Director so inspiring to the musicians and so deeply interested in such a range of music.

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The BSO mounted some other fine programs in the spring—and I did not hear everything. In late March British composer and fine conductor Thomas Adès led concerts inspired by Shakespeare’s play The Tempest, including two rarities, Tchaikovsky’s “The Tempest, Symphonic Fantasia After Shakespeare,” good to hear once, with some nice sea music, but a bit humdrum on the whole; and a marvellous discovery, Sibelius’s incidental music for the Shakespeare play, a late work of Sibelius’s, original and striking. Adès’s own violin concerto, titled “Concentric Paths,” did not relate to The Tempest, but no matter—a witty, light-hearted, serious piece (worlds away from the Birtwistle), featuring charismatic violinist Anthony Marwood. Adès concluded the program with scenes from his opera The Tempest, based on Shakespeare but with the text wisely rewritten—by Meredith Oakes—to achieve a simpler language more suited for musical setting. This opera is a highly imaginative work, and one only wished to hear more of it. Soprano Kate Royal and tenor Toby Spence were fine as the young lovers Miranda and Ferdinand. Soprano Hila Plitmann was something almost beyond belief in the super-coloratura role of the spirit Ariel. And Christopher Maltman as the patriarch and wizard Prospero sounded like the finest operatic baritone currently before the public—isn’t he?. This splendid and refreshing concert made one forget for the time the Levine loss.

There is always a lot of good Bach in Boston, but why shouldn’t the BSO get involved? It is good for the musicians and good for the BSO public. I enjoyed the St. Matthew Passion under Bernard Haitink a couple of years ago, with Ian Bostridge as the Evangelist—it was taut, focused, and flowing. This year in Holy Week, Japanese Bach and early music specialist Masaaki Suzuki led performances of the St. John Passion with highly dramatic singing from the Tanglewood Festival Chorus—somewhat raw, strongly rhythmical, emotional and heartfelt. The men soloists were especially good—Christoph Prégardien singing the Evangelist and tenor arias; Hanno Müller-Brachmann singing the baritone arias and Jesus, with fine inflection of color and expressiveness as the story unfolded; pervasive and invaluable Boston presence David Kravitz singing Peter and Pilate with strong voice. Contralto Ingeborg Danz was hard to hear in this space and with the orchestral balance. Striking soprano Hana Blazíková, with a sizeable non-vibrato voice, did not put across words and feeling very well. A small ensemble of BSO musicians played with great conviction and fine artistry—they seemed really to want to do this music and to relish the opportunity—John Ferillo and Robert Sheena providing the piece’s unnerving and beautiful oboe music; Martha Babcock working away eloquently at the cello continuo part—just to name a few.

One should not leave the area of orchestral concerts without taking note of the remarkable visit in April of the St. Petersburg Philharmonic under Yuri Temirkanov. This was a grand well-rehearsed presentation, opening with Rimsky-Korsakov’s Russian Easter Overture—colorful, brilliant, full of feeling here—and moving on to the Shostakovich Cello Concerto No. 1. Alisa Weilerstein played with passion and worked hand in glove with Temirkanov and the orchestra. After intermission came the Brahms Fourth Symphony, assured, clear, rich in tone, emotionally committed. Temirkanov’s command of the players and his sense of structure allow for an aristocratic quality of strong feeling held somewhat in check and measured out, building slowly until a piece releases its full depth of inspiration and full power, all at once at the end, catching us almost unawares. Lines are long and clear. The sound is seductive. All of a sudden we realize we have been devastated. The St. Petersburg string sound is heavy and dark, but very clear with perfect ensemble in the sections, rather like the current Berlin Philharmonic. The individual wind and brass players are not as subtle and eloquent as Boston’s, but work together very effectively. One standout was the principal flute, who played her solo in the Brahms passacaglia/finale with a big, warm sound and as much expressiveness and finesse as one will hear anywhere. This great concert ended with an encore—a sonorous, moving account of “Nimrod” from Elgar’s Enigma Variations, a consoling vision of beautiful meadows, if one likes, after the tragedy and concentration of the Brahms.

Part II—Opera and Other Events

Soon after the BSO presented its Bartók and Stravinsky short operas, the Cantata Singers under Music Director David Hoose continued their “Ralph Vaughan Williams Season” with that composer’s one-act Riders to the Sea, from 1936, almost contemporary with Oedipus Rex, based on the J.M. Synge short play about Aran Islanders and the loss of fishermen at sea. Vaughan Williams restrains his own atmospheric-evocative powers here and fashions a work focused on Synge’s beautiful and suggestive words, letting the words come to the fore. The semi-staged performance was fine—soloists, chorus, and orchestra, with mezzo Lynn Torgrove especially effective as Maurya, the mother who loses a son. Unfortunately, the hall (Jordan Hall) was made too dark to follow the words printed in full in the (elaborate and informative) program book. One can never make out aurally most of the words in opera sung in English. Familiarity with a piece can allay this. But Riders to the Sea is exceptional in that the words come so fast and are so central. More light or projected titles were really needed here. The first part of the program gave us beautiful a capella choral songs by Vaughan Williams, Holst, Elgar, and Gerald Finzi (and plenty of light to follow along).

In March the Cantata Singers performed Bach’s Mass in B-Minor—a favorite work of Vaughan Williams and an inspiration to him. The performance showed some of the strain and difficulty of singing and pacing such a work, but in a good way. There was strain evident, but also a sense of difficulty overcome. The performance was a remarkably joyful one, full of an impulse to praise. The emphasis fell not on the huge, grave opening Kyrie, the mystical Et incarnatus, the slow, arresting Crucifixus, and plangent Agnus Dei—these moods were there and acknowledged, but the raison d’etre here to be the brightness and high energy of the Christe eleison (Christ a more accessible and hopeful aspect of the primal God?), Gloria, Et in terra pax, Cum sancto spiritu (positively manic here), Et resurrexit, and Sanctus. The Bach Mass can take different emphases; here the center was joy. Among the roster of good soloists, soprano Karyl Ryczek stood out as especially strong and convincing.

After the early winter presentations of short operas of Bartók, Stravinsky, and Vaughan Williams, full-scale opera came into its own in various hands in Boston—and I was not able to attend everything, such as Boston Lyric Opera’s Handel and Britten, Boston Baroque’s Rameau, and Opera Boston’s Donizetti. Last fall Opera Boston presented a problematic Fidelio. The company fully redeemed itself with Hindemith’s Cardillac at the end of February. This intense, constant-motion ninety-minute work—wisely played straight through here without intermission—is a product of Weimar Germany, and evidences both the anxiety and bright creativity of those times. Cardillac is an admired artist-goldsmith who murders those who buy his work, unable to part with his creations—he is deeply alienated from his society. Everyone knows there is a serial killer at large, but with no idea who it may be. People live self-indulgent and decadent lives. The general terror in face of the killer at large is compounded with terror at state power and at the volatility of crowds and mass movements. Hindemith and librettist Ferdinand Lion, drawing on an E.T.A. Hoffmann story, set the opera in the France of Louis XIV—but used this setting transparently as a mirror for modern times. The characters and chorus sing and interact expressively, often wrought to a fever pitch, but the orchestra, rather than getting involved with the expressiveness of the words and the singers, proceeds down its own parallel path, generating a series of contrapuntal integral small pieces, heavily weighted to winds and brass, brilliantly inventive—Hindemith really had juice at this point. The orchestral part has its own anxiety and sense of headlong fatedness, and its apartness from the singing creates a strange gap and further special anxiety. There is a sense of something larger and other than the characters, perhaps carrying them along and determining their lives, perhaps competing with them. The discrepancy is never resolved—a mystery remains about what we are hearing.

Stage Director Nic Muni and Designer Erhard Rom set this production in “the near future,” and it worked very well to bring this work close to our own time—chic art galleries, startling sexual excesses, abuse of political power and alarm over that, torture, the hard to understand alienation of those who commit violence. The acting was good all round, and the sets and action drew one in more and more as the madness unfolded. Baritone Sanford Sylvan as Cardillac sounded a little weak of voice, as if suffering from a cold, but carried off very effectively this part of brooding, tormented, inward-turned intensity. One couldn’t take one’s eyes off him or pay less than full attention when he was onstage. Soprano Sol Kim Bentley was fine as his loving—and neglected—daughter, as was tenor Steven Sanders as her suitor, a good-willed Officer who inadvertently causes great harm. David Kravitz was vivid both as the Marshall who proclaims the will of the higher political power, and as the Gold Merchant who is falsely accused and tortured. Tenor Frank Kelley and mezzo Janna Batty did a marvelous turn as sex fiends (while two flutes engage in a fascinating abstract duo). The chorus sang and the orchestra played, under Opera Boston Music Director Gil Rose, with all the precision, brilliance, and energy endemic to this music and that it asks for in those who would bring it to realization.

The Teatro Lirico d’Europa gave farewell performances in Boston in February and March. The traveling Bulgarian company has meant a lot to Boston audiences for many years now, with robust accounts of Mozart, Donizetti, Verdi, Bizet, Mussorgsky, and Puccini operas, featuring strong and remarkable voices suited to all this material. But they have lost their venue, Emerson College’s Cutler Majestic Theater. On the final night they announced that they would return—one hopes that they find a way. First this year the company presented Lucia di Lammermoor. The set lacked the referred-to fountain, and also a backdrop—we saw just a blank grey screen in the distance, when it would have been nice to have even a sketchy rendition of Scottish Highland scenery. The orchestra sounded committed but rag-tag, as is sometimes the case with this group. The cast and chorus were generally fine. And the Lucia on the night I attended was extraordinary, a striking svelte figure with a mass of curly red hair, and a voice and manner fully up to the mad scene and all the role. I felt privileged to hear her—Russian coloratura Olga Orlovskaya. The company’s final performance, a few weeks later, was La Traviata, a wonderfully successful production. The unit set worked very well adapted to Violetta’s rooms, the country cottage, and the scene of the party with gambling. The trio of principal singers, all the cast, and the chorus were excellent in these vocally and emotionally demanding roles. Soprano Snejana Dramtcheva was very moving as Violetta. The orchestra played superbly and with a lovely elegant melancholy under conductor Christian Deliso. Traviata is one of the true masterpieces of the music drama—humanly complex, vivid in feeling, deeply well organized—art making its own sense of life. In this production, on this occasion, the piece came across fully as what it can be, what it is.

Verdi influenced Hindemith in Cardillac, as Richard Dyer pointed out in his excellent program note for Opera Boston. And early and early-middle Verdi, prototypically Traviata, influenced Stravinsky and served, along with Mozart, as a major inspiration for The Rake’s Progress, his 1951 opera of set pieces, recitative, and vivid depictions of a range of emotions, all worked in a tonal harmony akin to Haydn or Mozart—or Verdi— but quite strange, really, pure Stravinsky and nothing else. The source material is a series of Hogarth pictures showing a young man’s rise to wealth and then his debauchery and decline into madness. W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman provided a witty and incisive libretto, well suited to Stravinsky’s liking for the terse phrase, worthy of repetition. The composer fashioned this opera with great commitment, working at a high pitch of inspiration, producing a marvellous variety of music—romantic, celebratory, raucous, sex-obsessed, comic, and tragic—all beautifully shaped to follow the rake’s career from love-worthy but restless to dissipated, then regretful, then mad and destroyed.

Emmanuel Music presented the Rake semi-staged in mid-April with triumphant success. Ryan Turner has taken over this year as Emmanuel’s Artistic Director, succeeding the late founding Director Craig Smith and John Harbison as interim Director the last two years. Last fall Turner led a fine auspicious performance of Handel’s Alexander’s Feast, and with the Rake he has confirmed himself as an extraordinarily talented conductor and fine leader for Emmanuel. The Rake is hard, with difficult varied orchestral material, and altogether poses a great challenge for pacing and emphasis. Turner was fully on top of things. The orchestra played vibrantly. The chorus—the Spectrum Singers, who have been involved in other Emmanuel productions—sang with real dramatic commitment. Tenor Charles Blandy was an affecting Tom Rakewell, and soprano Kristen Watson his Anne Truelove. David Kravitz (again) was a formidable Nick Shadow—the seducing Devil figure added by Stravinsky and the librettists to the original material—but Kravitz was almost too large of voice for the setting and his colleagues. Mary Westbrook-Geha was vivid as Baba the Turk, the Bearded Lady Tom perversely covets and weds. Frank Kelley stole the show for a while as the auctioneer Sellem, disposing of the ruined Tom’s goods, including Baba. Honestly, with this performance I felt the greatness, multi-facetedness, delight, and tragedy of this opera more than ever.

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There is always lots of good chamber music in Boston, performed by musicians based here and by visitors. Just to note a little of what I was able to hear lately—back in the winter the visiting Takács Quartet made a super-strong presentation of the Bartók Third Quartet. This shortest of Bartók’s set of six, given in one movement, represents the composer’s major breakthrough into modernism. It here seemed grander and more significant than ever, but in no way ponderous—light on its feet and with plenty of wit. The Takács played some intelligent Haydn before the Bartók, and after intermission Schubert’s great late Quartet in G-Major—a performance almost too driven and intense, but not quite—the Takács made one see it their way.

On Palm Sunday there was a remarkable Boston Conservatory concert of music by Jan Swafford. Swafford is widely known for his books on Charles Ives and Brahms, and The Vintage Guide to Classical Music. He is known locally also for many fine program notes and pre-concert talks for the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Swafford has been writing music going back to the 1970s and has had performances in many places and won awards for this work. The recent concert centered around the cello, magnificently played—even heroically, considering the amount and intensity of the material—by Emmanuel Feldman, who was joined variously by his excellent colleagues in the Omega Trio, violinist Eva Gruesser and pianist George Sebastian Lopez. The program opened with a piece written just a few years ago for Feldman, In Time of War, a sober duo for cello and piano, with a prayerful ending. Next came Magus, for cello and electronic tape, a large odyssey-like piece going back to 1977 and since revised, where the “human” cello struggles with the out-of-control-seeming technological power represented in the synthesized sounds. Visions, hallucinations, episodes in various moods, time stretched and made material—much comes into play in this drama that feels, in a necessary way, longer than it is, long like a lifetime, as a dream can seem. Best of all, after intermission, was the piano trio They That Mourn, written in 2002 “In memoriam 9/11.” This beautiful and moving piece, all one movement, is spun from a four-note motive, rising for three notes and then falling, an oriental-sounding phrase of grief. This figure, varied and developed, allows what seems like memories of trauma at moments, memories of ordinary human life and human feeling at other times, and, most importantly, ongoing human feeling—we are human because we remember and mourn. There is much variety—midway a chorale-like passage, toward the end an episode in bright major-mode—but all derives from the basic material and comes back to that, all finally seeming like one long phrase. The deeply well organized music subsumes all, saves all, saves us who attend. Swafford’s music is sophisticated—original musical ideas, procedures of development and organization that know their Stravinsky, Bartók, Ligeti… But beyond being sophisticated (and as with the composers just named), melody, phrases, musical gestures of every kind take notably human shape, spring from the human, represent the human, identify music as human. And there is a grand transcendent drive to it. Swafford is a modern, even modernist, romantic—like his early hero and inspiration Charles Ives. [Click here to listen to one of the works on the program, They That Mourn.]

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As I write, the Boston Early Music Festival is in full swing. It occurs here every two years with a week of concerts, often simultaneous ones, going on from first thing in the morning till past midnight. There are exhibitions and seminars. Everything is well attended. Enthusiasm runs high. Others will write about these events for the Berkshire Review. I would just take note that BEMF’s opera production at the Cutler Majestic Theater, Niobe, Queen of Thebes, was a tremendous success and beautifully capped Boston’s season of good opera. This unfamiliar work offers true seventeenth-century music, by Agostino Steffani, with that era’s harmonic freedom and penchant for bold moves—and a true seventeenth-century spirit close to Walter Benjamin’s Trauerspiele—a sense of the arbitrariness of politics and fate, and of human passion’s vulnerability to sudden change. The BEMF orchestra played beautifully under Paul O’Dette and Steven Stubbs. Design and staging by Gilbert Blin were gorgeous and convincing, with baroque gestures and poses, and baroque dancing, all seeming organic to the drama and believed in by the participants. And best of all, there was a large effective cast of singers, led by Amanda Forsythe as Niobe (very sexy in a post-coital scene—adulterous) and extraordinary countertenor Philippe Jaroussky as Anfione, Niobe’s otherworldly and tragic husband. The notion is creeping up on one that Boston has become a remarkably good place for opera. —How about some Wagner?

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