Best Concert of the Year?

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Andris Nelsons conducts the BSO

Andris Nelsons conducts the BSO

Boston has had a very good music season since the first of the year. Notably, Andris Nelsons has established himself ever more fully as leader of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. After a triumphant concert performance of Strauss’s Elektra in the fall, Nelsons came back with especially strong accounts of three large-scale symphonies: the Shostakovich Eighth in March, and the Bruckner Third and Mahler Ninth in April. All were brilliantly played by the orchestra, which seems to have accommodated itself to Nelsons very well. The Shostakovich is a rendering of the pain and despair and ultimately the mockery of the Second World War. Years ago Paavo Berglund led a more agonized, punishing performance here. But Nelsons achieved a remarkable organic quality and shapeliness for the huge first movement—the movement made sense of its bleak inspiration, not just expressing it passively. And overall Nelsons and the orchestra responded to Shostakovich’s creativity and joy in instruments and sounds as an answer to the negativity that faced him in writing the piece. Art documents life, but also answers back to it, transcends it. The Bruckner is a fragmented work of brusque and incomplete phrases, anguished and struggling to express itself, turbulent, never settled. Nelsons got the spirit of this just right. (The relative calm in the storm, the lilting second-movement Adagio—Bewegt, quasi andante—was unnerved the night I attended by the collapse of an audience member in the first balcony close to the stage, who, after much coming and going of concerned personnel, revived a bit and was walked out—the music never stopped.) Nelsons’ Mahler Ninth might be called a young man’s view of the piece, which is usually associated with an aging and ill composer’s confrontation with death and silence. But the performance worked very well. The first movement’s build-ups and climaxes blew in fast like violent storms out of nowhere, rather than the usual accumulating step-by-step of inexorable fate—a refreshing take on things. The Ländler and Scherzo-Burleske inner movements sounded less Austrian than an anticipation of Shostakovich’s biting cynicism—a valid insight. And in the long concluding Adagio, Nelsons held the audience spellbound with long phrases and gorgeous sounds right up through the extended pianissimo playing at the end, as everything dissipates—something Abbado did not quite achieve with a visit of the Berlin Philharmonic here years ago. I think of Nelsons as an East-European-oriented artist. But he ended the season with spectacularly good performances of Debussy’s La Mer and Ravel’s La Valse—sensuous, rhythmic, exciting—played right next to each other in succession. Who would ever do that? Why not?

Nelsons is making a better impression with new works than he did at first. Back in February the presentation of Danish composer Hans Abrahamsen’s soprano and orchestra piece let me tell you was a great event. Nelsons had conducted the premiere in Europe with dynamic singer-actress Barbara Hannigan, who appeared here also. This piece, based on Paul Griffiths’s novel with the same title, centering on the breakdown of Shakespeare’s Ophelia in Hamlet, is highly original and endlessly inventive in putting into musical terms the strained emotions, the otherworldliness and visionary insight, the atmosphere, the very weather, of Ophelia and her situation. The audience stood and cheered at the end. The Shostakovich Eighth program in March included Georgian composer Giya Kancheli’s Dixit, a cruder work than the Abrahamsen, but fun to sit through with its deployment of a huge chorus singing fragments of Latin on the theme of transience and death. The BSO has given admirable space over the years to Boston-area composers (though it might well have extended its range a bit, and ought to still, to western-Massachusetts master Lewis Spratlan). But it is nice to have Nelsons bring us some of what Europe is producing and hearing and talking about these days. And everyone here is excited about the BSO’s upcoming artistic association with Thomas Adès, to begin next season.

Best concert? One doesn’t attend everything, and one hears of great things one missed. But two back-to-back piano recitals, on successive nights in early April, both at Jordan Hall, were quite striking. Jeremy Denk opened with Bach’s G-Minor English Suite—fast but very clear in articulation, phrasing, and the defining of rhythms. Best of all on this program was a grouping of ragtime and ragtime-related pieces played without break, including some Scott Joplin, Hindemith and Stravinsky takes on ragtime, William Byrd (!), a Nancarrow canon with the voices written at jarringly incompatible tempos, and Harlem “stride” pianist Donald Lambert’s delightful version of the Pilgrims’ Chorus from Tannhäuser—music of very different moods and sound worlds, but, as Denk showed, all of it deeply kin in its interest in syncopated rhythm. The theme here, and indeed of the whole recital, was the sensuousness and wit of rhythm. Hearing the ragtime set one thought back to the Bach. And after intermission, hearing Schubert’s great B-Flat-Major Sonata, one thought back to the first half of the program—an interesting connection to make but as it turned out, something of a limitation. The Schubert was not really moving. The piece is an extended, emotionally open journey into darkness and the beyond, with memories of life coming back at times, with surprising shafts of sunlight falling along the way, and also surprising shocks occurring, outbursts of violence. Denk had our minds too much on cross rhythms and felicities of construction, keeping a certain distance from the work’s raw feeling.

Pianist Russell Sherman

Pianist Russell Sherman

Russell Sherman is a very different sort of pianist from Denk—dreamy, visionary, fond of the sustaining pedal and overlaid sounds—but like Denk a serious analyst, always showing us new things in the music he plays. He began with Schönberg’s Three Pieces for Piano, opus 11, from 1909, which look back to Brahms or Liszt in the latter’s more deliberate and experimental mode (some of which would come later in the program), and forward, especially in the third piece, to the utter atonality and avoidance of (comforting, orienting) repetition of material that Schönberg and his followers would make a major mark of twentieth-century music. Sherman was clear and moody at once, with a big sound, more propulsive and inexorable than some are with this music. The Beethoven Waldstein Sonata that followed was nervous, flighty, often blurred in sound—full of “ellipses,” a friend remarked—not as convincing as the great Opus 109 and Appsassionata Sherman offered last year. I wondered if his dexterity and stamina were fading at age 86. But no, as the rest of the program made clear. Sherman was doing just what he wanted with the Waldstein, and followed it with a set of Debussy Preludes, Book II, brilliantly well executed, each with its own distinct character—the pieces seemed more different from one another than is usual—and then three of Liszt’s Transcendental Etudes played virtuosically and with big sound, and attuned to all that makes these pieces groundbreaking and unpredictable.

The New England Conservatory’s Summer Institute for Contemporary Performance Practice (SICPP—affectionately known as Sick Puppy) has been going now for some dozen years, led by super-able pianist, conductor, and teacher Steven Drury. Every June the Institute offers a week of concerts of contemporary music from hither and yon, played by the students, their mentors, and special guests. I am tempted to call this year’s June 20th concert the best of the year hereabouts, in the first place because of the atmosphere—a large audience, largely young, loving and drinking in every moment of what they were hearing, and seeming to feed inspiration back into those onstage. The music was rare and valuable, the presentation expert. The program consisted of John Cage’s Apartment House: 1776 (1976) and Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Instruments (1976). The Cage is based on the idea of various different things going on at once in a given space (such as an apartment house), in this case America at the time of its independence. Cage asks for four singers, each offering his or her own choice of authentic song—here we had a baritone and tenor at the back of the (relatively shallow) Jordan Hall, in suggestive costume, singing, respectively, Native American and Sephardic chant; onstage we had a frail and blonde soprano, dressed in white, singing Protestant hymns, and a robust African-American woman singing a sort of gospel-misery song. The piece begins with a stretch of the Native American song, which starts to become overlaid with popular colonial tunes in a somewhat deconstructed state played by three quartets of instrumentalists onstage (mixed strings, winds, and brass), and eventually we get drum marches coming through loudspeakers, as well as persistent singing from all the singers. The dis-harmonious counterpoint goes on for about half an hour, amounting to a Melvillean vision of America as a mismatch of various peoples and interests, intruding on, sometimes complementing, often brutalizing one another.

Reich’s Music for 18 Instruments, about an hour in length, is perhaps the masterpiece of the so-called Minimalist movement, associated with composers Terry Riley, Phillip Glass, and John Adams as well as Reich—where simple phrases in decided rhythms are repeated over and over, subtly changing after a bit, the whole harmony and soundscape subtly changing, as a piece progresses. Music for 18 Instruments, like the painting of Jackson Pollock or the sculpture of Richard Serra (Reich’s friend), asserts a new American energy—feeling the weight of mid-century and even further back history, but opening a door out of it into somewhere unanticipated—visionary. The first thing that strikes one as this music begins is the unprecedented new sound Reich has achieved with his three marimbas, two xylophones, vibraphone (with no motor), four pianos, violin, cello, clarinets (mostly bass clarinets), and four women’s wordless voices, some of the elements being amplified (the voices not quite enough on this occasion). It is a sound at once high and rich, ecstatic, a new world or counter-world. The flow and changes proceed according to a careful music-theoretical plan, as explained by Reich in a note on the piece. The listener doesn’t consciously follow this plan, but senses a profound ordering, as in late Beethoven, an intellectual mastery at the heart of things, something one has faith in without being able to discern it quite. Phrasing due to breath, in the winds and voices and strings, is pitted against the more machine-like and relentless phrasing of the percussion instruments (including piano). As the slow and gradual metamorphosis of the piece proceeds, one finds oneself now and then in the minor mode, here just a slight darkening of the pervasive sunniness. One finds again and again that the general sound world has changed, as in an episode a little more than halfway through when two pianos pretty much take over, offering fast bravura phrases with fistfulls of chords—shades of Liszt, Brahms, Rachmaninoff, Bartok. The piece is a journey of discovery, a recasting of the symphonic journey in a way. Cage gives his performers considerable leeway, asking for a work of theater, a new set of people on each occasion presenting their own version of his vision of America. Reich’s piece has a dimension of theater too, or did at this performance. One took in a spectacle of the (mostly) young and unselfconsciously hip, each individually dressed—some sparkle or a scarf/shawl here, a t-shirt there, some bare leg, hairstyles both flamboyant and sedate—everybody working intently to a purpose like participants in a ritual or ritual-inspired drama. Stasis, surprise, and ecstasy on and on until it all quickly and beautifully peters out.

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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