Recent Orchestral Performances in Boston, above all Oliver Knussen and the BSO

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Oliver Knussen directing the Boston Symphony Orchestra with Claire Booth, Soprano, Photo Stu Rosner.

Oliver Knussen directing the Boston Symphony Orchestra with Claire Booth, Soprano, Photo Stu Rosner.

Sunday evening, April 14th, the night before the fateful Boston Marathon, British composer/conductor Oliver Knussen was honored by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project and the New England Conservatory at a concert at Jordan Hall. NEC officials awarded Knussen an honorary doctorate, and BMOP director Gil Rose led the orchestra in two of Knussen’s early pieces, Music for a Puppet Court (1983) and the Symphony No. 2 (1971), written when Knussen was 19 years old and a composition fellow at Tanglewood. Knussen has now often taught at Tanglewood and directed the contemporary music program there, and has had much association over the years with the New England Conservatory and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. A major figure on the international music scene, Knussen has maintained this special local connection, and the gratitude shown him on the 14th was appropriate. He spoke briefly and modestly, and seemed very moved.

Music for a Puppet Court consists of lively settings for small ensemble (celesta, guitar, harp, and percussion, with some winds and strings) of two canons by 16th-century composer John Lloyd, with Knussen’s own variation movement to go with each canon. There is an archaic sound to it all, and yet the music is characteristic Knussen, with his bright, complex writing for winds, his spinning out of beautiful melodic lines, his quite un-cynical sense of humor. Knussen writes in a thoroughly sophisticated modern mode, his pieces densely well organized. But a humanity and personality, a wit and seasoned playfulness come through not unlike that of Haydn or Mozart. The very early Symphony No. 2 is more “expressionistic” than what Knussen’s music would become. It sets texts of the always intense and disturbing Georg Trakl and Sylvia Plath (“Stone, stone, ferry me down there…”), and one hears Schoenberg and Berg in the music. Still, the piece is structured with Knussen’s distinctive wit and sense of perspective, and is very much in possession of itself—the young composer makes certain traditions his own. Soprano Sonja Tengblad had an attractive stage presence, sang the words expressively, and created a sense of amazement as she carried off the constant high register of her part. The orchestra (largely female) played Knussen’s pieces and all the rest of the program expertly and with enthusiasm.

On the same program it was nice to hear Alberto Ginastera’s Harp Concerto (1956), relaxing a bit from Knussen’s density into simpler, Latin American rhythms and, in the Molto moderato middle movement, after a stunning harp cadenza, delicious languor. Soloist Krysten Keches played with great accuracy and presence, and really captured the audience. Many evenings have a fly in the ointment, and here it was Michael Gandolfi’s piece The Nature of Light (2012), two movements (Waves, then Particles) for clarinet and strings—simple, simple-minded, repetitious. Laura Ardan, principal clarinet of the Atlanta Symphony, played with a beautiful sustained tone in the slow first movement, and with poised virtuosity in the fast, sparkling second movement. Good work by the musicians here, but not much substance to the material.

On the two evenings previous to this concert Knussen led the Boston Symphony Orchestra in a program featuring more of his own work along with some interesting Russian choices. Knussen’s Violin Concerto is an outgoing, expressive work, and soloist Pinchas Zukerman rendered it with a big, warm tone, emphatic phrasing, emotional commitment, and, altogether, a strong reaching out to the audience. The work is in three movements played without pause. The opening “Recitative” develops an Aaron Copland-like figure (the open sound of the intervals) with great variety and many surprising changes of direction. The succeeding “Aria” is elegiac, with long-spun lines in the violin. The concluding “Gigue,” a dance in 6/8 rhythm, at first blush playful, manages to sound as it goes on like chaos and violence engulfing the human figure represented by the violin. The work, written soon after 9/11, begins and ends with a bell tone, where, according to Knussen, he had the Twin Towers in mind. The piece is human, witty, artistic, distanced, but ultimately, and in afterthought, conveys the sense of a void opening up. The earlier “Whitman Settings” (1992) set four uncharacteristically short, but strong Walt Whitman poems. In “When I Hear the Learn’d Astronomer,” Knussen renders the contact with science and mathematics as a violent assault, and the layman’s retreat to contemplation of the night sky as peaceful and transporting. In “A Noiseless Patient Spider” the soul and the music reach out beyond themselves, as does the spider with her filaments. “The Dalliance of Eagles” focuses on the sky but brings us to earth with sex as a (happily, naturally) violent act, rendered with quick, inventive music. “The Voice of the Rain” merges nature with art, in their strivings and cycles. Very atmospheric music. Soprano Claire Booth looked lovely and sang bravely, but the writing of the piece tends to swamp the singer with orchestral sound—maybe Knussen could have balanced things better.

The concert opened and closed with the Russian pieces, surrounding Knussen’s work, or leading in and leading out. Nicolai Miaskovsky’s Symphony No. 10 (1928), much admired by Knussen, is a turbulent one-movement work inspired by Pushkin’s poem “The Bronze Horseman,” where a statue of Peter the Great comes to life and chases a man to his collapse and death. An ongoing, out-of-control chromatic figure, much repeated, reminiscent of early Schoenberg, starts and defines the piece. In quieter material a violin and solo wind instruments sound like lone and desperate voices, undermined by queasy harmonies in the larger orchestra—Knussen says in an interview that he sees no relation of Miaskovsky to Shostakovich, but if there is any it would lie here. Then a big development section with fugal elements and lurching divergent lines à-la-Richard-Strauss drives things to chaos and conclusion. Knussen’s own work sounded both more civilized and knowing and also more open to human possibility, after this. But the Miaskovsky wouldn’t let us ignore the tragedy in Knussen. The concert concluded with Leopold Stokowski’s orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, which the orchestra played magnificently. The piece sounded like a fresh masterpiece, more “Slavic” than in Ravel’s well known (and wonderful) version, with thicker (but still clear) textures and weirder sounds—Stokowski worked from Mussorgsky’s original piano version, whereas Ravel had a score already tamed by Rimsky-Korsakov, with odd notes and odd harmonies removed. Knussen says Mussorgsky is “a god” to him, and one imagines that what matters to him is the inventiveness and originality, the strong characterization of parts, the beauty wrought out of ugly intimations—all characteristics that Knussen’s own music revives.

So, a wonderful Knussen weekend, not without intuitions and memories of disaster, followed by the horror of the bombings in Boston. On the Thursday of this week, April 18th, the BSO presented a mostly conductor-less concert, following on its similar successful one last season. At the start Cathy Basrak, Assistant Principal Violist, who had run in the Marathon and was wearing a Marathon shirt, spoke about the events and dedicated the concert to those killed and hurt. The injured and their families had been invited to attend compliments of the orchestra, and many were there, many very young people, all of whom seemed to enjoy things very much—all very moving. There were fanfares by Benjamin Britten and Michael Tippett, a loving account of Mozart’s Wind Serenade in E-Flat, K. 375, and of Dvořák’s String Serenade, the violins and violas all standing—this piece especially poignant and touching. And finally a grand and full-blooded account of Britten’s A Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, variations for featured instruments and orchestral sections on a noble theme by Henry Purcell, ably led by new BSO assistant conductor Andris Poga.

There is still no announcement of a new BSO music director, though rumors say things have boiled down to Daniele Gatti and Andris Nelsons. Both are problematic. Gatti is a pretty good, middle-level conductor, elicits good playing, caresses details, but lacks in musical imagination and propulsiveness. He ended a three-concert-series visit to the BSO this season with a static and fairly dead Mahler 3rd Symphony—nothing like James Levine’s exciting and revelatory account a few years ago. Gatti would represent a clear and decided step down from Levine. Nelsons is more interesting, though he seems less than fully formed as a musician, or at least not yet in full sync with this orchestra. He was here in late January/early February for a concert series offering the Shostakovich Violin Concerto No. 1, where soloist Baiba Skride played with a compelling intensity, drawing one in; and then the Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 5 in E-Minor, which by virtue of the phrasing and attention to inner voices sounded quite fresh and new, but did not achieve the full organic grandeur and deep Russian-ness of this piece. The orchestra played very accurately but was not giving itself fully to this performance.

The BSO played much more beautifully, and with more commitment, for Charles Dutoit the week before, especially in music from Prokoviev’s Romeo and Juliet. And all Dutoit’s visits here lately (for three series this season) have been great successes, featuring French and Russian music. Very special were concerts last fall presenting two short operas: Stravinsky’s Nightingale and Ravel’s L’Enfant et les sortilèges. Christoph von Dohnányi was here in February leading Mozart’s great plangent Piano Concerto in A-Major, K. 488, with Radu Lupu as a rather listless soloist; and Bruckner’s Symphony No. 4 in a performance strong in architecture but lacking in sensuousness and charm, which this piece, with its Alpine atmosphere, really offers and asks for from performers. Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos visited for two weeks in February/March, looking thin and frail and sitting down to conduct, but doing his work very effectively. He led energetic and focused performances of the complete Stravinsky Pulcinella, with singers; the Haydn Mass in Time of War; and the next week Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, which sounded wonderfully unfamiliar, newly complex and tense, full of new colors, altogether exciting. Bernard Haitink is here for the two concluding weeks of the season. All these older conductors will return next year, helping to sustain the BSO as it finds its way forward.

About the author

Charles Warren

Charles Warren studied literature and music formally and now teaches film history and analysis at Boston University and in the Harvard Extension School. He is the author of “T.S. Eliot on Shakespeare,” and edited and contributed to the volumes “Beyond Document: Essays on Nonfiction Film” and “Jean-Luc Godard’s ‘Hail Mary:’ Women and the Sacred in Film.”

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