Davies Hall, San Francisco
Wednesday, December 7, 2011
Boston Symphony Orchestra
Ludovic Morlot, conductor
Harbison – Symphony No. 4
Ravel – Daphnis et Chloé, Suite No. 2
Mahler – Symphony No. 1 in D major.
It had been a while since I heard a Wednesday-night concert at Davies Hall. Generally I am to be found there on Saturdays, when a week’s program has had a chance to settle in with the musicians, and where you can read in the players’ foot-shuffling and stand-tapping the tea-leaves of approval for a conductor. But judging from the audience, this recent Boston Symphony program took place more in an “opening night” spirit of gravitas. The extra formality seemed to befit the orchestra’s demeanor and reputation.
Not since the Dresden Staatskapelle last played here has an event exuded a like aura of serious appreciation. Despite its current state of unsettled leadership, the Boston Symphony represents a substantial portion of America’s iconic musical past, and you had the feeling on Wednesday that some very proper Bostonians, themselves virtual institutions, had emerged from public obscurity to render homage. Indeed, it was almost disturbing to witness the age of the audience, which in San Francisco tends to be youngish and oriented to date-night. The young, of course, ever perceive disapproval on the faces of the old, though this can be an inadvertent byproduct of trying to focus uncooperative eyes. Some of us in our sixties ruefully begin to notice this. But my imagination wasn’t prepared for the scene in the lobby, where a thousand apparently scowling octogenarians patrolled the halls like alligators—-peering challenges into the not-quite-recognized faces of enemies. Thank heavens for the rejuvenating waters of music!
And that they were. John Harbison, as much as any contemporary composer, has devised a harmonic “shorthand” to rescue tonality for his modern generation of listeners. Traditional harmony and melody are so pervasively understood today, that even the ringtones on cell-phones tend to be truncated—mere hints of some widely known melodic profile. (“Beethoven’s Fifth,” for example, might be outlined by just two or three notes, instead of four.) But hints, arranged properly, can make for a fine journey. Musical form is meant to tease. And Harbison’s Fourth Symphony is a very enjoyable example of what can be done with them.
As the BSO took the stage to perform it, I noted that this remains one of the few orchestras still dressing in white-tie and tails. The players do not exude the “Herr Doktor” professorial superiority of German orchestras, who tend to look out over the footlights as if wondering what in hell they are doing there… But they do project a quiet authority, and I was not surprised to see Ludovic Morlot emerge from the wings, himself in traditional concert dress. Morlot has recently accepted appointment as Music Director of the Seattle Symphony, so he is presumably regarded before the BSO as a functionary maintaining the equipment. This he appears to be doing magnificently.
Morlot is an unusual conductor in two ways: he conducts all gestures directly to the front and within the width of his body, never turning sideways. It is almost impossible to determine from behind what he is doing. He’s not unexciting. You just can’t see him move. The other item is that, through no fault of his own, he bears an uncanny resemblance to Rod Blagoevich, the former Illinois governor, who happened to be sentenced on this same Wednesday to fourteen years in prison! Blonder hair, less of it, but a similar way of walking and moving—when you could see it. Happily, Morlot conducted far more honestly and effectively than Blagoevich governed! No gendarmes necessary.
The Harbison Fourth owes a lot to Stravinsky, I find. But so, generally, does everything else, so this is no criticism. He manages to blend the Apollon side of Stravinsky with something streetier, more like Gershwin, more noise-conscious. You sense the bustle of the city. Here and there in the piece you imagine somebody is helping Doris Day cross Fifth Avenue at high noon. There are beautiful church bells and unexpected Shostakovich-like stillnesses to be encountered; others hearkening back to violin interludes or Ives. Seemingly familiar but ungraspable passages challenge you, hint and disappear, yet make perfect sense. The Threnody movement alternates lava-like rivers of euphonious but impenetrable chords with quiet Bernard Hermann moments rendered static, as though recomposed by E. J. Moeran, who was good at silences. There are rich emotional gestures brought to a halt by shock climaxes. And the finale springs to life like a factory full of machines—without John Adams’ chattering trumpets, by now a serious cliché. The music always maintains a sense of direction. Indeed, it eventually appears to be loping anxiously down an alley you’d rather avoid. But the experience of sharing the journey with it is, and was, only a pleasure. The symphony was very well received.
The Boston Symphony played the Harbison flawlessly and the Ravel, which followed, better than flawlessly. This is an orchestra in beautiful shape. Nine basses give it a rich but always transparent foundation. And I noted with amusement that trumpets, cymbals and drums together managed to maintain a lighter sound in those slam-bam moments than would be the case with our own orchestra. The amusement stems from the fact that Symphony Hall Boston has the most enjoyable cymbal-crash acoustic of all American halls. Like champagne. Every Boston Pops recording demonstrates it a hundred times over. The BSO would not be itself without that sound!
The performance of the Second Daphnis suite was suave and Munchian in its excitement, I thought, just flexible enough but never soupy. Morlot is a natural conductor, and nothing is unusual about his music-making except for how good it is. He had the Boston winds playing with understanding delicacy, making nearly as much of the music as the French Radio Philharmonic had managed a while back under Myung-Whun Chung, which is saying a lot.
For the second half, I wandered up onto the side terrace just over the trombones to get a better vantage point. In the Mahler First Symphony, Morlot’s approach was springlike, graceful as Mendelssohn and un-neurotic, which suited me just fine, since it was combined with real power and excitement in the climaxes. Indeed,the percussion sections of orchestras on tour generally go crazy with excitement, and this one was no exception. The first movement concluded with an unusually wild timpani chase—-like dogs trying to catch-up with a ball thrown down the hall and finally pouncing on it. And the finale was brought to a close with what must have been the greatest bass drum crescendo that I’ve ever heard.
As this occurred, a man sitting next to me audibly exclaimed: “Holy shit! Best seats in the house!”
Next to him sat a very formal African-American usher, who equally audibly, and with long-suffering disapproval, said: “Yes, Sir”.
Just beyond—and sitting in what would normally be the choral benches—was a party of rather beautiful society women. They were squired by a red-faced bon vivant in a double-breasted blazer—the kind who shows too much pocket handkerchief and beams possessively. They were slumming. He was clearly enjoying shocking his charges with the loud sounds audible that close to the orchestra, not to mention the whooping of the audience. But as they got up to leave, I envied him rather less.
“Thank you for that, George,” one of the women said, as she passed by. “Pretty.”
And she said it again for emphasis: “Pretty!”
Something tells me Mahler would have hoped for more than that.