Dima Slobodeniouk leads the BSO in Sibelius' Symphony No. 1. Photo Hilary Scott.

Sibelius Pivots to the Symphony

A graph showing the reputation of Sibelius’s symphonies in the 20th century would look like a fever chart. When he wrote his first symphony at the very end of the 19th century, the composer was still struggling for recognition, and it took another decade for his work to receive international attention. Once that happened, his reputation rose to that of a composer whose music held the greatest interest for orchestras and audiences during a period when the early modernists were generating more polarized responses.

Juho Puhjonen, Pianist

Rameau, Scriabin, Beethoven: Who Provided the Contrast? Juho Pohjonen, pianist, at Tannery Pond

Imaginative programming matched by imaginative performances marked a surprising and satisfying evening of solo piano music at Tannery Pond Concerts. There is a mini-vogue for Rameau’s keyboard music, originally written for harpsichord, but currently being performed on piano, offering virtuosi surprising opportunities to show off their chops. There are You Tube video performances by Grigory Sokolov, Alexandre Tharaud, Clément Lefebvre, and Kyu Yeon Kim. Playing harpsichord music on the piano is a long-standing practice, but with increased awareness of the originally intended instrument and its unpianistic characteristics (including razor-sharp attack, lack of graduated dynamics, ultra-transparent textures and absence of sustaining pedal) pianists have had to make strategic choices whether to emulate some of these traits or to ignore them and use the full resources of the modern piano to interpret the music in ways that would have been unimaginable to the composers. An interesting debate hinges on the question of whether this latter choice would have been unacceptable to the composers, or on the contrary, delightful. 

Stefan Jackiw and Jeremy Denk play Ives' Violin Sonatas at Ozawa Hall. Photo. Hilary Scott.

Ives Revealed: the four Violin and Piano Sonatas, along with Some Hymns used in the Sonatas

As complex as they are on the page, Ives’s violin sonatas need powerfully imaginative interpretations to come fully alive, ones finely attuned to the composer’s unique sensibility, background, and musical idiom, ready to embody a spirit of exploration, experimentation, and even improvisation. Performances can err on the side of a traditional, European (i.e. Brahmsian) approach, such as the recording by Rafael Druian and John Simms, made in the ‘50’s, a streamlined modernist approach e.g. Paul Zukovsky and Gilbert Kalish, from the ‘60’s, a showy, virtuosic approach, like that of Hilary Hahn and Valentina Lisitsa from 2011; or they can find a balance among these that incorporates American vernacular fiddling traditions, like Gregory Fulkerson and Robert Shannon from 1989. All of this is required if these works are to cohere and succeed in communicating their emotional contents to an audience.

Nelsons and Thibaudet play Gershwin.

Subtlety in the Shed: an Oxymoron? Nelsons and the BSO play Stravinsky’s Petrushka and Gershwin, with Jean-Yves Thibaudet

After the sparkling performance of George Gershwin’s little gem of variations on one of his most popular songs, an audience member asked her husband “Do you want to stay after intermission?” Certainly the atmosphere had been more that of a Pops concert with hearty applause after the first movement of the concerto as well as an ovation at the end; but at that moment it struck me that the ears that savored the pleasures of Gershwin might not relish the kaleidoscopic astringencies of Stravinsky. The much less enthusiastic audience reception for the ballet score affirmed this, despite a performance that capably revealed the colors and shapes of this astonishing breakthrough work.

Composer Detlev Glanert

Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra conducted by Killian Farrell, Nathan Aspinall, and Andris Nelsons, with Thomas Rolfs, trumpet soloist; July 8, 2019: Iconoclastic Shostakovich, plus Bombastic Tchaikovsky, Ingenious Glanert, Giddy Berlioz: the TMC Orchestra’s First Concert of  2019

The job of a critic has two elements: the first is to report the facts of a performance: what was played, by whom, and what the music and performance were like in objective terms, as far as possible (never fully successful); and the second is to offer some judgments about the quality of both music and performance. This second part is fraught with difficulties: judgments are necessarily subjective, and yet in order for them to be useful to the reader, they need to be justified in terms of the values upon which they are based, especially since the critic is fully aware that his/her long-held prejudices (euphemistically called convictions) are not necessarily shared by readers.

Emanuel Ax joins the BSO and Andris Nelsons for Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 22 in E-flat. Photo Hilary Scott.

Tanglewood’s Boston Symphony Orchestra Opening Night, Friday, July 5, 2019: Mozart Piano Concerto in E Flat, K. 482 and Mahler’s Fifth Symphony

On Friday night as evening approached, a quintet of wind players from the Boston Symphony, joined by excellent pianist Jonathan Bass, set the mild summer air of Ozawa Hall in motion with an elegant program of wind music well-suited to assist listeners transition from the pleasures of a perfect day in the Berkshires to the orchestral depths of tragedy, passion, and triumph by nightfall. Mozart initiated both programs with elegant, joyful, and subtly profound works composed at the apex of his career: the piano and winds quintet, which he professed to be his favorite among works composed to that point, and the concerto, no. 22, which (along with no. 23) stands unostentatiously between better-known works on either side (nos. 20 and 21 preceding, nos. 24 and 25 following).

Thomas Adès leads the BSO in the suite to his opera, Powder Her Face, 7.22.18. Photo Hilary Scott.

More Strength Than Mystery—the Musical Spaces of Adès and Sibelius

Thomas Adès’ affinity for the music of Sibelius was manifest last summer when he led the TMC Orchestra in a program that included the Symphony no. 7.  In my review of that performance, I called attention to the relationship between mystery and space that is evident in this music and is also a factor in Adès’s own works.  These parameters were present in the current program but not as prominently: mystery was eclipsed by performances that were energetic even to the point of aggressiveness.  This might have been a function of the need to project into the cavernous reaches of the shed; both Adès and Tetzlaff, the soloist in the Sibelius Violin Concerto, favored large gestures, emotional intensity, and the upper end of the dynamic spectrum.  The results were musically clear and impressive, appropriate for Adès’s own music but sometimes less so for Sibelius.

Conlon Nancarrow with Player Piano.

Contemporary Music Old and New: Out-takes from the Festival of Contemporary Music, 2018

The time-frame of “contemporary music” keeps expanding.  “Modern music” was a term (and the name of an American music magazine) current from the 20’s through ‘40’s, but is still used to refer to music from the 1890’s on.  After the war, we have the beginnings of “contemporary music” with Boulez, Carter, Stockhausen, the Darmstadt composers and the Cage followers who were busy decrying “modern music” as passé.  Since the late sixties when twelve-tone music was periodically declared a dead-end in the pages of the Sunday New York Times and elsewhere, we have had “post-modern” music, which includes “new romanticism.”  Tanglewood has had a “Contemporary Music” festival since 1961, so we can safely say that the “contemporary” era is at least 57 years old.

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