Five in the Afternoon, and more…the Boston Classical Season, So Far

Rome’s Santa Cecilia Orchestra, led by Sir Antonio Pappano, with guest soloist Martha Argerich, visited Symphony Hall on Sunday, October 22nd, performing at the rather unusual hour of 5 p.m. Going into the concert, I was overtaken by the suggestion of my title for this review. Thinking of Lorca and Hemingway, who between them immortalized the phrase “Five in the Afternoon,” in connection with bullfighting, I wondered if we concert goers were in for a strong flavor of doom, transcended through ritual and magnificence. No such thing. The concert was all beauty and vitality, though certainly with magnificence about it.  This stunning event was the best orchestral concert of the fall in Boston.

Jermaine Smith as Sportin' Life in Porgy and Bess with Bramwell Tovey conducting the BSO. Photo Stu Rosner.

Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess at Symphony Hall – Amplified Again! (Is amplification musical doping?)

I’m sure I wasn’t alone in my keen anticipation of this reprise of the 2011 Tanglewood performance of George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess — not to here an excellent performance of a “good” version of the opera once again, but to hear it properly for the first time. As I said in my preview of this performance, the Tanglewood performance was totally vitiated — ruined — by the extensive use of amplification for the singers. None of Berkshire Review writers who attended wanted to review it. Although virtually the entire cast consisted of established opera singers, it was thought necessary to provide them with individual microphones.

Leila Josefowicz

Esa-Pekka Salonen and Leila Josefowicz in Salonen’s Violin Concerto, with Ravel’s Tombeau de Couperin and Stravinsky’s Complete Firebird

This concert was without a doubt one of the great events of the season, whether in Boston or New York, and certainly a high point in the BSO’s unexpectedly patchy year, at least as far as guest conductors were concerned, which seemed almost miraculous on paper, given the short notice allowed by James Levine’s final health setback, but in practice greatly curtailed by the cancellation of some the most distinguished conductors. Riccardo Chailly’s coronary ailment forced him to cancel his two concerts and effectively put him out of the running for the empty music directorship. Andris Nelsons rather strangely decided to go on paternal leave barely more than a month before his scheduled concert. Ill-health made it necessary for Kurt Masur, one of the great interpreters of the Missa Solemnis, to back out of his engagement while already in rehearsal. It was, to say the least, reassuring to find Esa-Pekka Salonen appearing  as scheduled with violinist Leila Josefowicz in an advanced stage of expectancy, much to the delight of her many fans in the audience.

Jaap van Zweden Conducts the BSO in Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony and Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 2 with Emanuel Ax

Last summer two extraordinary new conductors made their Tanglewood debuts, both of whom are former concertmasters, the Finn John Storgårds and Jaap van Zweden, who held the post at the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. Both enjoyed enormous successes. Van Zweden, now around fifty, turned to conducting in his mid-thirties (after a career concertmaster of the Concertgebouw from the age of eighteen!), and soon came into important music directorships in the Netherlands, those of the Residentie Orchestra of The Hague and the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic in Hilversum. Since his appointment as Music Director of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra in 2008, he has been making sparks fly in the U.S. with his electric interpretations and the quality of playing he elicits from the orchestras he conducts.

Brasserie Jo Boston Back in Form Again. Highly Recommended!

Years ago it was pretty much unthinkable to dine after an evening concert in Symphony Hall, unless you happened to find a Hayes Bickford that was open all night. It’s still not easy to find a place where you could relax and converse for a couple of hours without feeling rushed, much less being surrounded by floor sweeping, the overturning of chairs, and a glaring waiter. I do know a few places in the neighborhood that are open late, but I wouldn’t recommend them. Brasserie Jo, however, is one restaurant—a five minute walk away—where I’d feel comfortable settling in after a concert. The main menu remains available until 11 pm Monday through Saturday, and a bar menu takes over until 1.30 am. It’s also worth noting that lunch is served until 3 pm—a small blessing for us tardy folk and busy guests in the Colonnade Hotel.

Hector Berlioz, Les Troyens, Boston Symphony Orchestra, James Levine, conductor

Les Troyens is so widely accepted as Berlioz’s greatest work, that the progress of the Berlioz Renaissance is punctuated by performances of it in the opera house and in concert, beginning, arguably, with Sir Thomas Beecham’s moderately abridged 1947 BBC broadcast. Now Boston music-lovers may consider the Berlioz Renaissance to be something of a noble fiction, since his music has had its own secure place in the Boston Symphony repertoire for many years, maturing with Charles Munch’s arrival in 1949. During his tenure he and the BSO performed and recorded several of Berlioz’s most important works, and the recordingsare still considered among the best. Later, both Jean Martinon and Seiji Ozawa continued the tradition most capably, and Berlioz has been one of James Levine’s great enthusiasms since early in his career. Expertise in Berlioz seems to be a prerequisite for the job. Yet, this is the first complete performance of Les Troyens by the foremost Berlioz orchestra in America, which in the past has only played brief excerpts, above all the “Royal Hunt and Storm” from Act IV. Hence these concert performances of Parts I and II on following weeks, culminating in a complete performance on Sunday May 4, are in fact landmarks.

BSO, Levine: Harbison, Symphony No. 5, Mahler, Das Lied Von Der Erde, Symphony Hall

As in November, James Levine has chosen to pair a work of Mahler with the premiere of a commissioned work, this time, not Elliot Carter’s brief, dense, but deceptively limpid Horn Concerto, but an ambitious symphony for mezzo-soprano, baritone and massive orchestra by John Harbison. It was only after Harbison had begun to make sketches that Maestro Levine, exercising his substantial gifts as a patron of new music, suggested that voices would be a welcome addition. The composer responded by taking up works by three poets who have been particularly highly regarded in recent years, the late Czesław Miłosz, Louise Glück, and, as the classic guest, Rainer Maria Rilke. These texts extend throughout the four movements like wall-to-wall carpeting, and one might get the impression that they had come to dominate the symphony, if its orchestral foundations and symphonic structure were not as strong as they are. The result is a work which attempts to do justice to two objectives: the expressive setting of narrative and lyrical verse and a fully-realized symphonic work. One might think that such a duality might prove a recipe for disaster, but in Harbison’s intelligent and experienced hands, the result is a double, if still somewhat divided, success.

Alfred Brendel’s Farewell Recital in Boston, Symphony Hall, Boston: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert

For his Boston farewell program, Alfred Brendel chose a selective cross-section of the repertoire he has cultivated through much of his career, and a fascinating selection it was, both in terms of Mr. Brendel’s taste and the inter-relationships between these mostly classical composers. [Click here for a review of his New York farewell with James Levine and the Met Orchestra.] There was no Schoenberg, no Schumann, and Liszt only as an encore. One felt that he had concentrated on the very marrow of his repertory. On the other hand, it came as a powerful discovery to experience the various forms—the overall shapes—of these four works within the compass of a single concert. Brendel has always been especially strong in comprehending and delineating classical structure and form, and now, at the very end of his public career, he appears to have distilled it to the utmost. Haydn’s rich F minor variations, which unfold over a melancholy walking figure in the bass, preceded the musically unusual, but traditionally constructed Mozart sonata, which concludes with an introspective rondo, also set at an ambling pace, cobbled from an earlier independent work. After this, Beethoven’s concentrated Sonata quasi una Fantasia, seemed like a revolutionary outburst, although all Beethoven actually did was to pare his movement-structures down to the point where they could function in support of an improvisatory style. After the break these three strikingly different, but equally terse classical works were followed by Schubert’s Romantic expansion of classical form to encompass a wealth of drawn-out melodies, harmonic invention, and subtle changes of mood.

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