New York Arts in the Berkshires

B-List Works Shine Forth at Symphony Hall. Andrew Davis leads the BSO in Vaughan-Williams, Prokofiev (with Yuja Wang), and Rimsky-Korsakoff

Ralph Vaughan-Williams

The oeuvre of the each of the greatest, most familiar composers can be imagined as a personal cosmos, a collection of works of great power and quality, spanning a wide range of style and expression. Mention of their names is almost enough to arouse expectations of music belonging on the A-List. Other significant but less ubiquitous composers can be known to concert audiences through small numbers of repeatedly performed works that possess an identifiable sound, style, and mood. Less familiar but important works by two such composers, Ralph Vaughan-Williams and Serge Prokofiev, received fine performances by the Boston Symphony in late March, along with an A-List favorite by Rimsky-Korsakoff. These works gave audiences a chance to savor some less familiar, even surprising sides of their composers’ artistic personalities, and to provoke curiosity about what other works by these composers might be lurking in the shadows of the B-List.

Better on Paper? Gerald Finley’s Winterreise, Kirill Gerstein’s Piano Recital in Boston

Viktor Hartmann (1834–1873), Paris Catacombs

I can’t think of any musical event this season I was more looking forward to than Canadian baritone Gerald Finley singing Schubert’s Winterreise at Jordan Hall (February 7), and I’d been almost equally excited about hearing Russian-born pianist Kirill Gerstein return to Boston for a full length Jordan Hall piano recital (January 31). Both concerts were sponsored by the Celebrity Series of Boston, and both sounded great on paper.

Boston Symphony Orchestra—Life in Winter: Poga and Ohlsson, Eschenbach, and Haitink

Garrick Ohlsson with Andris Poga and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Photo Stu Rosner.

On January 25th the Boston Symphony Orchestra and assistant conductor Andris Poga completed a series of concerts that, to judge by that final evening, made for one of the season’s high points. Mr. Poga completes his term with BSO this year and moves on to take over the Latvian National Symphony Orchestra in his native Riga. He is an imposing figure onstage—vigorous but not flamboyant, authoritative in his gestures—and on this occasion showed a remarkable inwardness with all the music he conducted.

Nachtmusik: Sondheim, Anne Hutchinson, Denk, Levin, and Abbado

David Kravitz as Frederick, Krista River as Charlotte, Kristen Watson as Anne (Julian Bullitt photo)

The title A Little Night Music is only the first of the many inspired elements of Stephen Sondheim’s inspired 1973 musical version of Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night (or, more correctly translated, I’m told, Smiles of the Summer Night—i.e., the night of the summer solstice). Of course it calls up both Bergman’s most subtle comedy as well as Mozart’s most famous serenade. And although Sondheim’s stream of waltzes and other triple-meter dances more directly evolves from Viennese operetta than Viennese opera, there’s a consistent Mozartian elegance and chiaroscuro to this work. The high water mark of Sondheim’s career was probably in the 1970s, the decade of Company (1970), Follies (1971), Pacific Overtures (1976), and Sweeney Todd (1979), all collaborations with director Hal Prince. Everything that followed was more problematic, although many admirers would add Into the Woods (1987) to this list, and I’d also include the moving Passion (1994). Sondheim himself regards his Pulitzer Prize-winning Sunday in the Park with George (1984) as his best work.

Good Times, Bum Times: Last Year in Boston

Stephen Sondheim’s lyric from Follies seems especially suitable for this past year in Boston, and for the classical music world in general. There was a lot of terrible news: the folding of the New York City Opera, the cancellation of Minnesota Orchestra concerts and the ensuing resignation of Osmo Vanskä, the music director who put it on the map (even George Mitchell couldn’t make peace between labor and management). The worst thing to happen to Boston, especially for the arts, was the sudden shutdown of its most important weekly newspaper, The Boston Phoenix (I’m biased, of course, having written for the Phoenix for some 35 years). With only a day’s notice, some wonderful writers were suddenly out on the street, and the go-to place for listings and reviews became the sound of silence.

Sacred and Profane

Daniel Mobbs, Caroline Worra, and Heather Johnson in Boston Lyric Opera's production of Jack Beeson's Lizzie Borden

“Lizzie Borden took an axe/And gave her mother forty whacks…”—so begins the old rhyme about the 1890s murder case in Fall River, Massachusetts. Both stepmother and father were killed. Though Elizabeth Borden was cleared of the crime in a jury trial, artistic treatments of the case have assumed her guilt, notably Agnes de Mille’s ballet of 1948, Fall River Legend, and Jack Beeson’s opera Lizzie Borden of 1965. There are films and television series, some realized, some still in the planning stage.

Literally operatic: Two Boys at the Met plus opera in Boston

A Scene from Nico Muhly's Two Boys at the Metropolitan Opera.

A few minutes after the final curtain of Two Boys descended, after composer Nico Muhly received his ovation and joined the cast for their curtain calls, I think I figured out the true nature of this opera. This was the first main stage Metropolitan Opera production of the estimable Met/Lincoln Center Theater New Works program. Two Boys has been in the works for over five years, and had its world premiere at the English National Opera in 2011. The Met has given it serious encouragement and high-end attention. The opera has a libretto—based on an actual crime in 2001, in Manchester, England—by playwright Craig Lucas, a Pulitzer and Tony finalist; was directed by Tony Award-winning Bartlett Sher (South Pacific); and conducted by David Robertson, music- director designate of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, a musician especially admired for his performances of contemporary music. The intricate production design by Michael Yeargan, which includes a gloomy police office with overhead fluorescent lights, and projections of computer screens and internet chat rooms (by 59 Productions), is certainly not cheap looking (as was Yeargan’s set for one of the Met’s few other premiere’s in recent decades, John Harbison’s The Great Gatsby). Care and money had clearly gone into this production.

Andris Nelsons Conducts in Boston: BSO Fall Concerts Plus András Schiff Recital

Andris Nelsons conducts the BSO. Photo: Marco Borggreve.

Andris Nelsons has now made his first appearance with the Boston Symphony Orchestra since being appointed its new Music Director. He will return for one concert in the spring and then assume full duties next fall. On October 17th, he was welcomed very warmly with a standing ovation, and at the end of the evening received another, well deserved one for a very effective performance of Brahms’s Third Symphony.

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