It is always a pleasure to be in the Cape Ann harbor town of Rockport and to attend musical events in the beautiful Shalin Liu recital hall with its glass wall looking out to sea. The June 26th concert provided a striking contrast in styles of Baroque era music, with works of Bach and Handel, respectively, in the two parts of the program. The listener was invited into an emotional journey from darkness to light.
Wagner, Berlioz, Mussorgsky, Boito, Janáček, Schoenberg, Berg, and Tippett and Debussy all composed operas to their own libretti (or adaptations of spoken dramas). Now add the name of Harbison. While waiting for permission to compose an opera based on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, Harbison began composing anyway. By the time it was appropriate to look for a librettist, too much music had already been written and Harbison took hold on that function himself. The result reflects the composer’s concept of the drama in its broad outlines (the choice of scenes, pacing of the story) and its minute details (the word-by-word unfolding, the rhythms and inflections of each character). Although Harbison had an early history as a poet, the libretto struck me as having a prose-like quality, sometimes quoting the novel verbatim and often sounding like it. The conversational tone brings verisimilitude but sometimes also a certain flatness that may illustrate the directionlessness of the characters’ existence, but can seem oddly out of place in an opera.
As Ryan Turner began his second season as Music Director of Emmanuel Music so ambitiously with Bach’s B Minor Mass, it seems a good time to reflect on this small, but extremely productive organization and its place in the Boston musical world. One of the most characteristic—and felicitous—aspects of classical music in Boston is the proliferation of these groups, often founded around a chorus, but featuring non-choral music as well, often cultivating a speciality in Baroque music, and often combining this with the music of Classical, Romantic, and contemporary composers. Boston is home to other groups that play Baroque music on period instruments, and some of these have achieved international reputations. At Emmanuel music of the eighteenth century and earlier is played on modern instruments in a style which conforms more or less with the performance practices developed in the postwar years by Günther Ramin and Kurt Thomas with the Thomanerchor at Leipzig, and extending to Fritz Lehmann and Karl Richter in Berlin and Munich—with roots in the reformed performances of the 1920s. This doesn’t mean that these musicians don’t listen to their historically informed colleagues. In Boston, it is pretty well impossible for them not to exchange ideas and to learn from one another. As compelling as period performances of Baroque masters are, there is one great virtue to modern instruments: the music can be performed as part of a tradition extending up to the present day. The musicians can perform Bach seamlessly amidst Brahms, Bruckner, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Vaughn Williams, or, say, John Harbison, Principal Guest Conductor at Emmanuel Music, who wrote an enlightening personal note on the B Minor Mass for this performance.
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 notion is creeping up on one that Boston has become a remarkably good place for opera. —How about some Wagner?
The Boston musical season is now rolling along, with almost too many good things occurring to keep up with. The best news, and a great relief, has been the return of music director James Levine to the Boston Symphony Orchestra after many months off for back surgery and recuperation. Levine looks older, with more loose flesh around the face, and he walks onstage and off carefully with a cane (though at moments he just rests it on his shoulder and goes securely on). He seems to feel good, and once seated and starting to conduct shows great animation and involvement, indeed passionate involvement, in the work at hand. He has the orchestra playing spectacularly. He has really taken them beyond themselves, and they know it and seem to feel proud of it, as they should.