Autumn Music in Boston, 2018

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John Harbison, Composer and Conductor

John Harbison, Composer and Conductor

Autumn Music in Boston, 2018

Schoenberg in the opera often mentions Mahler, and we see his name projected on the back screen—a great Austrian Jewish composer who preceded Schoenberg in coming to America. Since James Levine’s day, the Boston Symphony has not given us Schoenberg (though Verklärte Nacht or the Five Pieces for Orchestra, or Gurrelieder might seem a good fit for Music Director Andris Nelsons). But the BSO does consistently perform Mahler, and in recent weeks gave us the huge, choral Second (Resurrection) Symphony and the tuneful and popular Fifth (whose Adagietto for strings is used so poignantly in Luchino Visconti’s film Death in Venice).

The BSO subscription season began Thursday, October 11th with a good concert led, when it was led, by excellent Finnish conductor Hannu Lintu. The program began with Stravinsky’s spikey Symphonies of Wind Instruments, where Lintu and the players managed the tricky changes of rhythm deftly, and Lintu balanced and voiced the sound to allow the orchestra’s fine woodwind and brass players to sing and shine. The BSO strings then played Tchaikovsky’s beautiful Serenade in C, without conductor. This was not a great idea. The strings were perfectly in tune and together, but a good conductor would have burnished the sound, which was too bright and raw as it was. It came as a relief, then, to have Lintu pick up the baton and lead a magnificent performance of Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra (originally a commission by Koussevitzky and the BSO), the sound here always fitted to the expressive demands of the piece, section by section, the whole building like a grand architectural structure to the grand, rapid conclusion with blazing brass.

The orchestra’s second concert series began on Thursday, October 18th, led by BSO Associate Conductor Ken-David Masur, who is always good. The evening opened with a tribute to John Harbison for his upcoming 80th birthday (more on Harbison below)—a sparkling quarter-time dance, a fox-trot, “”Remembering Gatsby,” very evocative of the 1920s and Harbison’s opera The Great Gatsby (based on the Scott Fitzgerald novel). There followed Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 1, a spikey work a là Stravinsky, here powerfully rendered by soloist Garrick Ohlsson with his tremendous command of the keyboard. After intermission came extended excerpts from Prokofiev’s ballet Romeo and Juliet. The music suggested not so much the action and drama of the ballet scenario, as it conveyed a mood of tenderness and loss that pervaded everything, and seemed to pervade everything about one as one left the hall.

BSO Music Director Andris Nelsons was on hand for the Mahler 2nd concert Thursday, October 25th. The concert began with Latvian composer Maia Einfelde’s choral piece Lux Aeterna, featuring the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, unaccompanied, led by the Chorus’s director, James Burton and “performed to mark the centennial of Latvian Independence,” said the program book—Nelsons is originally Latvian, of course. The combined voices sounded beautiful, and the piece achieved a peacefulness and quiet ecstasy anticipating the transcendent choral music that comes late in the Mahler.

The concert proceeded without intermission straight into the turbulent start of the symphony.

The best BSO performances of this symphony in living memory have been Levine’s a couple of years ago, and earlier Christoph von Dohnányi’s. The piece under Levine was sensuous and dramatic, the music transforming gradually into the splendor of the final choral death-defiance ”Rise again, yes, you will rise again…” Dohnanyi took a drier and more distant approach, exposing the structure of the piece—not so much musical evolution and development, as sections building like great stones rising into a cathedral, until light bursts through the glass.

The piece for Nelsons was all alternation of turbulence and peace, from first to last—to say the least, a view of the work, worth taking in. The women soloists, soprano Ying Fang and mezzo Bernarda Fink (“Humankind lies in greatest need”), as well as the Chorus, contributed crucially to making the effect. 

The Mahler 5th concert, Thursday, November 15th, began with Viennese composer H.K. Gruber’s Aerial, a concerto for trumpet and orchestra, featuring virtuoso trumpet player Håkan Hardenberger. Who also at times played the husky cow horn, or played one trumpet note while singing another pitch. So, some weird sounds, enhanced by an orchestra that included saxophones and a wide range of percussion—tam-tam, cowbell, sizzle cymbal, vibraphone, marimba and more. The piece is meant to depict or evoke aerial views of the earth, busy with activity or empty of people. For me, the orchestral background did not so much suggest the earth, as the clouds and cosmos, against which the flier/trumpet skittered and dashed around, the very spirit of motion, speed, curiosity, and adventure.

BSO principal trumpet Thomas Rolfs, himself a virtuoso, opened the Symphony, which begins as a suave Funeral March, with a beautiful ascending solo, ending a half step higher than one might expect—always in Mahler there is a movement forward and up toward transcendence. Rolfs, principal horn James Sommerville, and really everybody with solos played beautifully throughout the piece.

Overall a respectable and effective performance of the Mahler 5th. But it lacked for shading, subtlety, and charm, everything a bit too forthright, even loud—a besetting problem with Nelsons, which he needs to work on, and can surely overcome. He has led flexible, effective Mahler in the past—not to mention Richard Strauss. And between the Mahler 2nd and 5th concerts this fall, Nelsons led a good Elgar “Enigma” Variations (Thursday, Nov. 1st) , with real variety of tone and mood, well paced, ultimately very moving. The same program opened with a respectably transparent and pointed Haydn performance, Symphony No. 93 in D; and included contemporary English composer Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Remembering: In Memoriam Evan Scofield (son of a friend and musical collaborator), a BSO co-commission, gloomy in sound (no violins), agitated, reflecting or projecting mainly the state of upset of those left behind by a death. Quite memorable.

The next week, on Thursday, November 8th, Nelsons led a fine performance of work by another Latvian composer: Mara, by Andris Dzenitis—a large orchestra evocation/embodiment of a cosmic spirit that embraces, and indeed perhaps originates, everything. Lots of winds, brass, and colorful percussion, as well as massive strings; but all blended beautifully for the sake of the spiritual evocation. The same concert moved on to an on-its-toes, vivid rendering of Shostakovich’s precocious, somewhat Stravinsky-like Symphony No. 1, with a fine lyrical slow movement. But things concluded with an unsatisfactory, rather crude presentation of the Act II music from The Nutcracker— lacking in delicacy and the suggestiveness of Tchaikovsky’s imagination—just a series of tunes.

The BSO ended its fall season, unfortunately, with a poor performance of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, led by Nelsons on Thursday, November 29th. This compendium of six cantatas, each focusing on a part of the Christmas story, is best presented, as Bach intended, on separate occasions, one cantata for one day. The whole in sequence, as done here makes for a trying experience, even in a flexible and colorful performance, which it did not receive here. Tenor Sebastian Kohlhepp functioned well as the Evangelist, narrating the story from Luke’s Gospel. But otherwise the presentation was consistently too loud and forthright, thick in texture (where transparency and a light touch are wanted), the singing, both choral and solo, lacking in human commitment to putting across the words.

The earlier performance of “Remembering Gatsby” made, as said, a nice tribute to John Harbison in honor of his 80th birthday. More Harbison, larger-scaled, is scheduled for later in the BSO season.

The celebration really began late last winter, February 23rd, when Emmanuel Music, where Harbison has served as Music Director, took its forces to Cambridge, to Harvard’s beautiful—visually and acoustically—Sanders Theater for performances of Harbison’s Symphony No. 5 and music by Matthew Aucoin and Stravinsky.The concert theme was mythological—Aucoin’s and Harbison’s versions of the Orpheus story, concluding with a bang-up performance of Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex.

Orpheus has been allowed to visit the underworld of the dead and lead his beloved dead wife, Eurydice, back up to earth and into life, with the proviso that he not look back at her while leading her out, which proviso he violates, bringing disaster. Aucoin’s Orphic Moment focuses on the crucial point where Orpheus (here mezzo-soprano Deborah Rentz-Moore) agonizes over whether to look back, worrying over his desires and possible outcomes. Aucoin creates a background of dark, gloomy, uncertain music, appropriate to a descent into the land of the dead. The foreground drama is conveyed by the actual words (Aucoin’s own text) and relies on the singing-declamation power of the protagonist—quite effective here.

Harbison, however, setting mainly (in English translation) Czesław Miłosz’s poetic account of the Orpheus story, with passages of Rilke and Louise Glück, writes the thoughts, waverings, agonies, and accesses of hope directly into the music. The Symphony No. 5 is surely one of Harbison’s best pieces, a large, rich, complex work, where sweeping orchestral gestures, colorful instrumentation (electric guitar stands in as Orpheus’s lute), and sophisticated development of musical material, all enhance/embody the unfolding of this strange tale with its various moods. Emmanuel Music Director Ryan Turner led this challenging work very ably, featuring fine mezzo-soprano Krista River and baritone David Tinervia.

The concert’s conclusion with Stravinsky’s Oedipus put us firmly on dramatic ground, underscoring the horror at the base of ancient mythology—a descent into the land of the dead that ends in tragedy; a king’s unwitting murder of his father and marriage to his mother, bringing on plague and, with discovery, horrible self-punishment. Stravinsky’s neo-classical but emphatic (a touch of Rite of Spring) musical style answers perfectly to the drama. Ryan Turner brought it all to life with Emmanuel’s forces, some involvement of the Harvard Glee Club, and an excellent cast: tenor Jan Jurgens as Oedipus, soprano Michele Trainor as mother/wife Jocasta;and big-voiced baritone David Kravitz as Oedipus’s antagonist and successor Creon. Chris Lydon served ably as Narrator.

Earlier this fall, Saturday, November 3rd, Cantata Singers, where Harbison has served as music director, as at Emmanuel, paid tribute to him with a performance of his Sacred Trilogy. The concert, led by David Hoose, opened with a full-voiced and stirring rendering of Bach’s cantata Wachet Auf (“Wake up,” addressed to those who would presume to be “wise virgins” in anticipation of the coming of the Lord, figured as bridegroom. Harbison cites this piece as a major inspiration for his own work.

The concert moved on, after intermission, to Harbison’s three cantatas, the first originally commissioned by Cantata Singers, the other two co-commissioned by The Cantata Singers and Emmanuel Music. The Flight Into Egypt, which won a Pulitzer Prize, follows the Holy Family warned to escape King Herod’s decree to kill all newborn males. A grumbling trombone keeps us sensible of the violence looming. Baritone Brian Church and soprano Alexandra Whitfield, as well as the chorus, contributed to make up this picture of journeying, harkening to angelic messages, and, finally, blessed relief.

But Mary Stood gives us Mary Magdalen at the empty tomb of Jesus, puzzled and melancholy—affectingly voiced by soprano Lisa Lynch. Harbison’s music evokes emptiness and nothingness—blankness, in a word—until he brings in the chorus to voice the words of the finally appearing risen Christ, making himself known, and then St. Paul’s adulation of Charity (or Love) in 2nd Corinthians—the major legacy of what began at the Nativity.

The third piece in the trilogy, The Supper at Emmaus, brings the risen Christ to meet his somewhat skeptical disciples over a modest meal. Here Harbison creates a lively drama of voices, beliefs, and attitudes, much thrust and counter-thrust in an unexaggerated way. Vivid alto Jennifer Webb joined the mix.

Harbison’s music in the trilogy is attractive and takes form in parallel to the narrative and scenes being depicted. Yet, no disparagement to the music as such, one comes away most strongly impressed by the powerful words that are set from the King James translation of the Bible. Surely Bach would have approved, as would Harbison’s other musical hero and great inspiration, Heinrich Schütz.

During intermission Harbison’ new book, What Do We Make of Bach? was on sale in the lobby. Highly recommended—a collection of portraits of teachers and colleagues, where each portrait makes revelations about Bach; plus essays addressing Bach’s influence on later composers and his use, still not fully tapped, for contemporary ones, including Harbison himself. The book is very engagingly written, very evocative, and goes quite deep. For Harbison the ultimate moral of Bach is inventiveness within constraints, constraints inherited or self-imposed. Mahler, Elgar, and indeed Schoenberg render this moral as well—a good one for our lives, is it not? We all live under constraints and want creativity to make our way—something music and other art can bring to life in us.


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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