Saturday, November 21, 2015

BSO — 2015/11/19-21

I don't know how to introduce this week's concert, so I'll simply quote the BSO's performance detail page:
Andris Nelsons leads this intriguing program of seemingly disconnected works. Two of the most important works of the 20th century, Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5 and Alban Berg's Violin Concerto were composed within two years of one another. Shostakovich's symphony, which follows a trajectory from darkness to triumph, has long been considered his reaction to official condemnation of his music by the Soviet government, but the reality is far subtler than that.Alban Berg's Violin Concerto was composed as a memorial to eighteen-year-old Manon Gropius (daughter of Walter Gropius and Alma Mahler); the entire work is suffused with elegy. Its second movement quotes Bach's chorale Es ist genug, which has deep musical connections to Berg's piece. That brief Bach chorale from Cantata No. 60, as well as the short motet Komm, Jesu, komm!, open and set the tone for this program.

Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony Orchestra are recording these performances of Shostakovich Symphony No. 5 for a release in May, 2016!

Join the conversation online by using #BSOShostakovich for this concert series or #BSO1516 on your social networks to discover the excitement of the season and connect with one another!
(Some emphasis added.)

As always, you can find links to their Media Center, performer bios, program notes, and audio previews. What they don't tell you in the above blurb is that the violin soloist is Isabelle Faust and that the order of performance is Bach, Berg, Shostakovich. This concert is part of my subscription, but I'm really not interested in hearing either the Berg or the Shostakovich. If I'd been more alert, I'd have exchanged my ticket to this one for a ticket to either February 4th's concert of Shakespeare-related music, or to the one on March 29 which is in the series giving an American premiere; but after the attacks in Paris, I was content to be there because of the aspect of confronting tragedy and death which the program had.

The review in the Boston Globe isn't exactly glowing, but definitely favorable. The Boston Musical Intelligencer analyzes not only the music but also the performances, noting distinctive elements in Maestro Nelsons' approach.

As for me, I didn't catch most of the features that the program notes and interviews had pointed out, except when the winds repeated the "Es ist genug" theme toward the end of the Berg concerto. I'm beginning to think that I listen too hard at these concerts. Maybe I shouldn't bother to try to catch everything that's happening and just let it wash over me. Having some idea what to expect may be a good thing, but maybe I don't need to try to pick it all out as it happens.

You can hear it for yourself via WCRB's broadcast or webstream at 8:00 p.m., Boston Time, on November 21, with a repeat transmission on Monday, November 30, at the same time of day. Also check out the "on demand" availability of this and other concerts from the past year — see their BSO page for information about that (in the upper right corner) as well as the podcast feature and schedule information I've mentioned every week.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

BSO — 2015/11/12-14

Another week, another premiere by the Boston Symphony. This time, it's not merely the American premiere, but the world premiere that they'll give. The work in question is titled Aube, and it's by young Jean-Frédéric Neuburger. Then we step back in time for Bartók's Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta. After the intermission, the orchestra and guest conductor Christoph von Dohnányi are joined by pianist Martin Helmchen for the masterful Piano Concerto № 5, "Emperor," by Beethoven. The orchestra's performance detail page adds a bit more to my description with the following:
Frequent BSO guest conductor Christoph von Dohnányi leads the world premiere of Aube ("Dawn"), a BSO-commissioned work by the celebrated 28-year-old French composer Jean-Frédéric Neuburger. Neuburger's compositional voice is rooted in the brilliant colors and energy of his French predecessors from Ravel to Boulez. An iconic 20th-century masterpiece, Bartók's Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta epitomizes the composer's genius for mood and form. To close the program, German pianist Martin Helmchen plays Beethoven's majestic and high-spirited Emperor Concerto.
Join the conversation online by using #BSOEmperor for this concert series or #BSO1516 on your social networks to discover the excitement of the season and connect with one another!

As you scroll down the page, there are also the usual links to the BSO Media Center, with its podcasts, performer bios, program notes, and audio previews.

The Boston Musical Intelligencer presents a gushing review. The reviewer's analysis of the pieces in the concert could be read alongside the program notes and audio previews. His interpretation of their cosmic significance is unexpected, but not unprecedented in music reviews. The Globe has a very favorable review, devoted mostly to the new piece — which the reviewer liked — but with praise for the performance of the remaining works as well.

My take on what I heard Thursday evening is at once less analytic and less expansive. "Aube" was not unpleasant to listen to, although there were no clear, sustained "tunes" that I recall. It was clearly an organized succession of sounds (unlike some of the truly unpleasant stuff I've occasionally sat through), so it fits the definition of music. I didn't really "get it" on that first hearing. The question of whether there's anything there to get can only be answered with further hearings, so I'm looking forward to hearing it again on Saturday. The composer was warmly applauded (and applauded the orchestra), but didn't seem to want to remain on stage and bask  in it. About the Bartók I'll say I was pleasantly surprised at how listenable it was. The program note spoke at length about how the first movement takes a theme and moves it around the "circle of fifths," starting with A and ending with E flat, and then goes back to A with the theme inverted. Listening to it, I couldn't have told you that either of those things was happening, which tells you something about how untrained my ear is, and perhaps how skillfully Bartók works it.

Beethoven's "Emperor" Concerto is one of my favorite pieces. When I went to college, my freshman roommate had a recording of the "Emperor," Van Cliburn I think, that he'd put on his record player every Sunday morning. The machine had a defect: when it finished playing a side, it would return the needle to a point one inch in from the edge, over and over. The result was that Sunday after Sunday I'd hear multiple repeats of the last 3/4 of the first movement. Once in a while he'd play the second side. It was wonderful to hear that great music so much. One time, when I was at the monastery, I put on a record of the "Emperor," and for some reason I found myself actually moved to tears a some point in the slow second movement. That hasn't happened again. My dad always loved the transition from the second to the third movement. When we had the record on during dinner, he'd silence us to listen to the quiet end of the 2nd and beginning of the 3rd and then the forte statement of the triumphant main theme — a masterful moment to be sure.

I liked the performance on Thursday. There wasn't anything truly outstanding that I noticed. One thing I liked was that the pianist varied his dynamics very well. Soft passages, in particular, were really soft. Of course the loud parts were really loud as well. Overall, it was great music, beautifully presented.

You can listen on line or on air via WCRB at 8:00 p.m. EST (Boston Time, as I call it) today, November 14, with a repeat broadcast/webstream on Monday the 23rd, also at 8:00. The station's BSO page gives a link to their audio feature "The Answered Question," which this week includes interview material with conductor and pianist.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

BSO — 2015/11/05-10

This week we have one work that is considered standard repertory but one I don't often hear, Liszt's Totentanz, one piece getting its American premiere in these concerts, Mannequin by Unsuk Chin, and an old favorite, Symphony No. 3, "Rhenish," by Schumann. Indulging their penchant for describing the pieces in an order other than that in which they'll be performed, the writers of the BSO program description page, describe the concert as follows:
BSO Assistant Conductor Ken-David Masur leads the second BSO co-commission of the season, Korean composer Unsuk Chin's Mannequin in its American premiere. Mannequin was inspired by a short story by the great 19th-century German music critic and fantasist E.T.A. Hoffmann. Opening the program is Franz Lizst's dark and virtuosic Totentanz, played by French pianist Louis Lortie. Totentanz is considered among the most difficult pieces in the standard repertoire for piano and orchestra. Closing these concerts is Robert Schumann's innovatively structured paean to the Rhine River, the composer's Symphony No. 3.
Join the conversation online by using #BSOLiszt for this concert series or #BSO1516 on your social networks to discover the excitement of the season and connect with one another!
(Some emphasis added.)

As always, the performance detail page has links to program notes, audio previews, and performer bios (click on the thumbnail pictures), and — new this year — the BSO Media Center with its own podcasts and notes. The video excerpt from "Mannequin" gives a bit of the gentler portion of the piece, but it gives you some idea of what it's like. You get a bit more in the audio preview which follows the video.

Reviews were mixed. The Globe's was generally favorable, but found Maestro Masur's conducting in the older pieces unexciting. The Boston Musical Intelligencer really liked the "Totentanz," and found no fault with the conductor there, while joining the Globe in disappointment with his leadership in the Schumann. As for "Mannequin," the reviewer found little difference between the four movements.

I was there on Thursday and found the Liszt spectacular. The Chin piece was suitable as a depiction of a frightened frame of mind, but apart from the music-box-like elements in the first movement, there didn't seem to be much difference between the four — at least not at first hearing. I'll listen tonight over the radio and see if there's more distinction between the scenes. I wonder if the large variety of percussion, including some unconventional items, was really necessary. Still, since it was suitable as a depiction of a frightened mood, I applauded the composer enthusiastically. As for the Schumann, it's really enjoyable music to listen to, and I didn't find any fault with how it was conducted: I just liked hearing it.

So I think it worth your while to listen this evening, November 7, at 8:00, Boston Time (EST), and/or Monday, November 16, also at 8:00, over the radio or internet streaming of WCRB. As you know if you've been following my posts on the BSO, WCRB also has a BSO page of their own. This year, they embed their concert preview interview in a longer podcast called "The Answered Question." This week, the whole thing runs to 53 minutes. I haven't heard it yet, but somewhere it includes an interview with the conductor about the program — no doubt interesting, if you get a chance to hear it.

Anyway, I was glad to be at the concert, and I'm looking forward to hearing the first two pieces this evening before my kid brother's call from Tokyo and the "Rhenish" during the rebroadcast on the 16th. As is usually the case, I recommend listening to this one.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

BSO — 2015/10/29-31

This week's Boston Symphony is pleasant music throughout — nothing challenging for listeners or, I suppose, performers, with music by Tchaikovsky, Elgar, and Schubert.  We read, on their performance detail page:
Violinist/conductor Pinchas Zukerman returns to the BSO podium in both roles in two short, beautiful Tchaikovsky works for violin and orchestra [Mélodie and Sérénade Mélancolique], and to lead the composer's famous Serenade for Strings. Edward Elgar's warmhearted Chanson de nuit is one of two brief pieces originally for solo violin and piano (the other being Chanson de matin), later rescored for orchestra. Franz Schubert wrote his charming, four-movement Symphony No. 5 when he was just nineteen. Its balance of materials and control of the orchestra show the influence of Mozart and Beethoven.

Join the conversation online by using #BSOZukerman for this concert series or #BSO1516 on your social networks to discover the excitement of the season and connect with one another!
(Some emphasis added.)

See that page also for links to audio previews, program notes, their new "media center," and performer bio for Mr. Zukerman. Surprisingly, two of the five pieces are getting their first performances by the BSO — the two curtain raisers by Tchaikovsky — and the Elgar was never played by them in Symphony Hall.

As of this writing, there is no review yet in the Boston Musical Intelligencer. The Boston Globe has an unflattering review, finding the leadership of Maestro Zukerman uninspired and recalling superior performances of the main works by the orchestra in recent years. I was there on Thursday evening, and I found no fault with how anything was played. There's a lot to be said for a concert that's all "easy listening." But I was extremely annoyed by Zukerman's gesture when taking his bow at the end. He raised his hands about to shoulder level and made beckoning gestures with his fingers. The reviewer writes,
Taking his bows at the end of the night, Zukerman gestured to the crowd with his hands, as if to raise the level of the volume of the applause. There are other ways to do so.
I agree completely. The audience responded at once with cheers and much louder applause. I immediately walked out of the auditorium in disgust at the uncouth and unprofessional action. In my annoyance, I thought that Mr. Zukerman may have realized that his choice of unspectacular music didn't give the audience anything to go wild about, and maybe he thought the orchestra deserved a warmer ovation. (I later had the uncharitable thought that he chose pieces within his current capabilities as a violinist and as a conductor.) But it's an insult to the audience to tell them that they aren't applauding enough. I'm sorry many in the audience fell for it, and I wish I had had the presence of mind to boo the gesture before I left. Fortunately, if he does it again on Saturday, you won't see it over the radio or the internet.

Despite the unfortunate extraneous business at the end, I think the concert is worth listening to. You can do so over the radio and streaming facilities of WCRB — as you know by now, unless you're new to this blog. As usual, the live broadcast/webstream is on Saturday at 8:00 p.m., Boston Time, with a rerun on Monday, November 9, also at 8:00. The station's BSO page includes a link to an audio piece which, after looking back to the "Elektra" of two weeks ago, includes interviews with Mr. Zukerman and, unrelated to the BSO, with the mandolinist who will take over as host of "A Prairie Home Companion," Chris Thile.


Saturday, October 24, 2015

BSO — 2015/10/24

This week it's members of the wind and string sections of the BSO performing three pieces by Dvořák. Here's what the orchestra's performance detail page has to say about it:
The BSO's wind and string families perform conductor-less in this program of three works by the Czech composer Antonín Dvořák. The five-movement Serenade for Strings, is one of the composer's most familiar and popular pieces. In much the same vein of elegant entertainment is the Wind Serenade. The lesser-known but gorgeous Nocturne began life as the slow movement of a string quartet; its six-minute span is one of nearly unbroken melody.
Join the conversation online by using #BSODvorak for this concert series or #BSO1516 on your social networks to discover the excitement of the season and connect with one another!
(Some emphasis added.)

As always, that page has links to program notes, audio previews, and a podcast about the concert, but no performer bio this week: if you click on the thumbnail photo of the orchestra, you just get a larger photo. You'll note that once more the performance detail writer has taken the pieces out of the order in which they'll be performed. First it'll be the winds, then the Nocturne, and the String Serenade to conclude.

This program is only being given once, on Saturday, so there are no reviews of earlier performances since there were no earlier performances. But Dvořák isn't too tough to take, so I'm sure you'll find it enjoyable if you listen over the air or on line to WCRB at 8:00 p.m. on October 24. As usual, they will offer a rebroadcast/webstream just over a week later, on November 2. Their BSO page has a link to an interview about the concert as well as brief descriptions of what's coming up for the remainder of the BSO 2015-2016 season.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

BSO — 2015/10/15-17

This Saturday's BSO concert is Richard Strauss's opera Elektra, in a semi-staged (no costumes, very limited action) performance led by Andris Nelsons with soloists too numerous for me to list. Go to the BSO's performance detail page for a listing, along with the usual links to background information. They give the following description:
Richard Strauss's Elektra, first performed in 1909, remains one of the most powerful and influential operas in the repertory. The first collaboration between Strauss and librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Elektra is an intense, modernist adaptation of the ancient Greek revenge drama, in which Electra and her brother Orestes plot to avenge their father Agamemnon's death. Building upon the mastery of the orchestra and musical form Strauss had achieved in his orchestral tone poems, Elektra, along with its predecessor Salome, broke new ground in opera as a musical investigation of human emotion and psychology.
Join the conversation online by using #BSOElektra for this concert series or #BSO1516 on your social networks to discover the excitement of the season and connect with one another!

I exchanged my subscription ticket for one for November 5. I saw Elektra on PBS a number of years ago, and that was enough. I like some of Strauss's music — the horn concertos, Ariadne auf Naxos, Metamorphosen, the clarinet concerto, and the Four Last Songs come to mind — but there's a lot, including Elektra, I can do without. On the other hand, the Boston Globe had a glowing review, focused mainly on the leading soprano, but with praise for other elements of the performance as well, and concluding with, "Nelsons and company reprise the opera on Saturday. My advice: Catch it before it’s gone." The Boston Musical Intelligencer gives a very full review which includes an analysis of the opera (which expresses misgivings similar to mine about the music itself) and then gives very high praise for the performance. (I'm beginning to regret missing it on Thursday, and to consider listening on the radio.)

As always, you can hear the live broadcast or stream over WCRB at 9:00 p.m. on Saturday, October 17, or repeated on Monday, October 26. The station has a BSO page which describes the concert briefly
Soprano Christine Goerke sings the title role in Strauss's psycho-dramatic masterpiece Elektra, in a concert performance that also includes soprano Gun-Brit Barkmin, mezzo-soprano Jane Henschel, tenor Gerhard Siegel, and baritone James Rutherford, all conducted by Andris Nelsons.
and also includes a link to a podcast about last week's (and next Monday's rebroadcast) concert and this week's.

By the way, the BSO will also play last week's program of Currier, Beethoven, and Brahms on Tuesday, October 20, in New York's Carnegie Hall. If you're in the NYC area and can get to it, you may well want to go.

Friday, October 9, 2015

BSO — 2015/10/08-10

This week the Boston Symphony gives us one new work in its Boston premiere and two very familiar ones. Music Director Andris Nelsons will be on the podium. Here's what the BSO's performance detail page says about it, this time listing the works in the order they'll be performed:
The Grawemeyer Award-winning American composer Sebastian Currier's Divisions was co-commissioned by the BSO with the Seattle Symphony Orchestra and the National Orchestra of Belgium to commemorate the centennial of World War I. The title's meaning refers to both the military connotation of "divisions" as well as to its 16th-century usage as a set of instrumental variations. Two strongly contrasting 19th-century works balance the program. German pianist Lars Vogt plays Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 3. Brahms's Second Symphony is one of the composer's most gracious and sunny works-but with striking formal innovations.

Join the conversation online by using #BSOBeethoven for this concert series or #BSO1516 on your social networks to discover the excitement of the season and connect with one another!
(Some emphasis added.)
As usual, there are also links on that page for the BSO media center, performer bios, program notes, and audio previews.

The Globe review summarizes it fairly well, I think. So far, there's nothing about it in the Boston Musical Intelligencer or on The Arts Fuse. Having read the program notes a day or so before the Thursday performance and again at Symphony Hall, I was pretty well prepared for "Divisions," but I found it much more listenable than I had expected. It's definitely in a 21st century idiom, which I was expecting, but it somehow seemed more coherent than a lot of recent music. The second half was even gentler that I anticipated. Even the usher who has no use for recent music found this piece not too bad. I hope I'm not raising expectations too much. I just want say even if you don't like recent music, don't be afraid to listen to this fairly short piece.

The composer was present and came out for a bow after the piece was played. He seemed uncomfortable, making awkward gestures of waving to the audience and applauding the performers; he hung back from going to the front of the stage to receive the warm applause the audience gave him, staying three feet or so back. This was the first piece of Currier's the orchestra had performed. I hope they'll do it again and play other music by him.

The Beethoven piano concerto was well played, except that in a couple of places the strings drowned out the woodwinds. From my seat, I could see that during the first movement cadenza Maestro Nelsons turned to the last two pages of his score. I thought he was studying something about the end of the concerto, but eventually I concluded that those pages gave to music for the cadenza Mr. Vogt was playing (not printed where it occurs in the first movement because the pianist could do something different). So Maestro Nelsons was just following along to be ready to cue the orchestra when they came back in.

I decided not to stay for the Brahms and got home earlier than usual.

As always, you can hear the concert broadcast live or streamed over the facilities of WCRB. The station's BSO page has, among other things, a link to a podcast in which Lars Vogt, the pianist in the Beethoven, previews the concert. The live broadcast/webstream will be Saturday, October 10, at 8:00 p.m. EDT (Boston Time), and the repeat will be at 8:00 on Monday, October 19, just over a week later.

See what you think of the Currier. I hope you'll enjoy it as well as what follows.