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 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.
My collleagues have already written extensively about Emmanuel Music's performance of John Harbison's opera, The Great Gatsby, both at Jordan Hall and at Tanglewood. I won't attempt a full review, but I would like to share a few thoughts about the opera and the performance, both of which I heartily admired. As performed this year at Emmanuel Church and Tanglewood, Gatsby embodied some of the best and most characteristic traditions of American opera—the setting of classic literary texts (a speciality of Mr. Harbison's) and the mixture of popular musical and theatrical elements with an infrastructure of the most cultivated and rigorous compositional technique.
A portion of the rich but sometimes neglected trove of American symphonies was given a welcome exposure during the valuable Spring for Music Festival at Carnegie Hall in early May, thanks to the ongoing commitment to this repertory of music directors David Alan Miller and Leonard Slatkin. The beneficiary composers, Morton Gould and Charles Ives, both stand apart from the mid-century symphonic mainstream, also neglected, of Piston, Sessions, Schuman, Harris, Diamond, et al. It was a fascinating juxtaposition, particularly since Gould’s symphony has been largely absent since its premier in 1947, and most of Ives’s works had to wait lengthy intervals before receiving their first performances.
“So we beat on, boats against the currents, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” Nick Carraway’s concluding insight in The Great Gatsby is one of the great closing sentences in literature, and one of the great images of our human helplessness to escape the past. It’s also the line that ends John Harbison’s Gatsby opera, which—13 years after its premiere at the Metropolitan Opera—just had its first complete Boston performance, in a concert version produced by Emmanuel Music (the musical organization Harbison co-founded in 1970 with Craig Smith at Boston’s Emmanuel Church, mainly to play all of Bach’s cantatas as part of every Sunday’s liturgy). Harbison is now Principal Guest Conductor at Emmanuel, which has long been associated with his music, including the very first public performance, in 1997, of the first two scenes from The Great Gatsby.
Not since the Dresden Staatskapelle last played here has an event exuded a like aura of serious appreciation. Despite its current state of unsettled leadership, the Boston Symphony represents a substantial portion of America's iconic musical past, and you had the feeling on Wednesday that some very proper Bostonians, themselves virtual institutions, had emerged from public obscurity to render homage. Indeed, it was almost disturbing to witness the age of the audience, which in San Francisco tends to be youngish and oriented to date-night. The young, of course, ever perceive disapproval on the faces of the old, though this can be an inadvertent byproduct of trying to focus uncooperative eyes. Some of us in our sixties ruefully begin to notice this. But my imagination wasn't prepared for the scene in the lobby, where a thousand apparently scowling octogenarians patrolled the halls like alligators—-peering challenges into the not-quite-recognized faces of enemies. Thank heavens for the rejuvenating waters of music!