Saturday, March 17, 2018

BSO — 2018/02/17

Top o' the evenin' and a Happy St. Patrick's Day to ye!

This week the Boston Symphony is presenting two symphonies under the baton of guest conductor Giancarlo Guerrero. First we'll hear Symphony№ 6, "Pathétique," by Tchaikovsky, a perennial favorite. Then, after intermission, it's Symphony № 3, "Kaddish," by Bernstein, which the BSO hasn't performed since they gave the American premiere in 1964. At the BSO's program detail page for this evening's concert, you can find the usual inks to background information and the following synopsis:
Continuing this season's centennial celebration of the great Leonard Bernstein, Costa Rican conductor Giancarlo Guerrero returns to lead the BSO in Bernstein's Symphony No. 3, Kaddish, which is dedicated to the memory of John F. Kennedy. The Jewish "Kaddish" is the prayer chanted for the dead, a hymn of praise to God's name. Originally commissioned by the BSO for its 75th anniversary in 1955-56 but only finished in November 1963, this emotional, almost theatrical score was premiered under Bernstein's direction by the Israel Philharmonic. The BSO gave its only performances of the full score in early 1964 under Charles Munch. Opening the program is Tchaikovsky's masterful Pathétique Symphony, one of the composer's last works, full of intensely beautiful music, ending with a slow, quiet, and poignant finale.

Soprano Mary Wilson will replace Tamara Wilson for the Boston Symphony Orchestra concerts March 15-17.  Soprano Tamara Wilson is regretfully unable to perform this week due to a back injury.

I heard it on Thursday. The Tchaikovsky seemed well played, with nothing amiss or extraordinary in it. From where I sat in the second balcony near the stage, it didn't fade away at the end quite as much as I had expected. It was my first encounter with Bernstein's "Kaddish." I was curious to hear it. When I hear a work with a text, I tend to pay more attention to the words than the music, and that was the case with this symphony; so I can't say much about the music beyond that  it was loud, except when it soft, and noisy, except when it was calm. The text expressed anxiety about the state of things, blaming God for letting things get so bad. It was irreverent, and at a few points it bordered on the blasphemous; but it probably expressed honest feelings which were/are shared by many.

In what for them is a fairly lengthy review, the Globe spent a lot of time describing the Bernstein piece, with little about the performance, and just one (favorable) sentence about the Tchaikovsky. At the moment of this writing, there is no review in the Boston Musical Intelligencer.

It's all there for your listening pleasure on WCRB radio and on line at 8:00 p.m. EST, with a rebroadcast on March 26. Also check the website to see what else they're offering.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

BSO/Classical New England — 2018/03/10

The orchestra isn't performing in Symphony Hall this week, so WCRB is giving us an "encore broadcast" (and webstream). This time it's the concert given at Tanglewood last summer on Friday, August 11. I previewed it at the time. The performance detail page gave this description of the program:
Violinist Gil Shaham and cellist Alisa Weilerstein join forces on Friday, August 11, for a performance of Brahms's Double Concerto for violin, cello, and orchestra, with Costa Rican conductor Giancarlo Guerrero and the BSO. Brahms composed the concerto-his final orchestral work-as an olive branch to his old friend and close musical collaborator Joseph Joachim, with whom he'd had a falling out over Joachim's divorce. Also on the program are Dvořák's Carnival Overture and Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, the score to an intensely dramatic ballet and on its own some of the most dramatic music ever written.
(Some detail added.)

I was at Tanglewood for this concert and enjoyed the first half. Gil Shaham seemed to be having a great time. The Stravinsky had its moments, I suppose. The Boston Globe published a generally favorable review. I'll enjoy listening to what comes before my brother's call at 9:00. If you go to WCRB on line or on air at 8:00 p.m. EST, you can hear it for yourself. As you probably already know, the WCRB website also gives more information about the station's offerings.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

BSO — 2018/02/03

Two pieces from around 1900 make up the first part of this week's program. After intermission we get something from this decade. The BSO's program detail page has the usual links to background information and tells us this about the program:
Former New York Philharmonic music director Alan Gilbert leads a recent work by California-based composer John Adams, his Scheherezade.2, a work composed for violinist Leila Josefowicz. Adams's four-movement work is a 21st-century response to the Arabian Nights paralleling Rimsky-Korsakov's 1888 symphonic score. Opening the program is Jean Siblelius's atmospheric tone poem En Saga ("A Saga"), which features many of the composer's characteristic touches of orchestration and folk-music-influenced melody. Claude Debussy's Jeux ("Games"), was enormously influential for later composers in its luminous and nuanced orchestration.
(Some emphasis added.)

My mother told me that my paternal grandmother used to say, "A little Sibelius goes a long way." Maybe it seemed so in the 1930's to someone born in the 1880's, but when I began to hear his music, I was pleasantly surprised. IMO it's quite good in the context of its own time, to say nothing of later composers' work. I found "En Saga" quite enjoyable. "Jeux," on the other hand, was unimpressive to me. Fans of Debussy might like it.

As for "Scheherazade.2," it did nothing for me. The music was a pretty good fit for the scenario — loud and soft, fast and slow, as appropriate — and it enabled the violinist to show her technical prowess. I enjoyed watching one of the percussionists playing the hanging gongs and a set of hanging polished pod-shaped pieces of wood. John C. Adams is a well known and respected composer of our time. Perhaps his best known work is the opera "Nixon in China," which is imagines the thoughts of several of the participants in Nixon's historic trip. It has some musically interesting pieces in a "minimalist" style. (I also like Nixon's explanation to his wife of why he didn't send many letters during his navy service in WWII: "The Pacific Theater was nothing to write home about.")  But "Scheherazade.2" just wasn't attractive to me as music.

The reviews are respectful, but difficult to summarize. It's fair to say they're supportive of the concept of Scheherezade.2 and admire Ms. Josefowicz's playing. They spend a fair amount of space describing the work. The Globe's reviewer was unimpressed by the playing of the Debussy but liked how they played "En Saga." The Intelligencer, with the freedom of an on line publication, has much more to say about the first two pieces, and was content with how both were performed.

The only piece on the program I really want to hear again is "En Saga." My brother's phone call will keep me from listening to "Scheherazade.2" during the live broadcast this evening, but if I'm free on March 12 I'll listen to the rebroadcast to see if it is more satisfying on a second hearing.

You can hear the whole concert this evening, starting at 8:00, Boston Time, and again on March 12 at 8:00 p.m. EST. WCRB will broadcast and stream it at both those times. Note the interviews with conductor and violinist which are linked on the page about this concert, as well as other information about programming, also linked.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

BSO — 2018/02/24

This evening's program is all Mozart: three of his symphonies. The program detail page gives further detail, appropriately enough, along with the usual links to background material on the music and the conductor:
Renowned Massachusetts-born Swedish conductor Herbert Blomstedt returns to the Symphony Hall stage with a trio of Mozart symphonies. Composed in 1780 for an unknown occasion, the three-movement No. 34 in C major was the last symphony Mozart completed in Salzburg before relocating permanently to Vienna. The story of his Linz[ ]Symphony, No. 36, is one of those illustrating his surpassing genius. Passing through Linz in late 1783 on his way back to Vienna from a Salzburg visit, he was honored with a request for a concert of his music, but had no symphony with him-so he wrote this delightful piece in a mere four days. Composed five years later, the Jupiter Symphony was Mozart's last. Its elegance, mastery of counterpoint, and expressive power have secured its place as an epitome of the genre.
(Some emphasis added.)

What's not to like about Mozart? I was there on Thursday and enjoyed the show. The word "comfortable" occurs to describe the performance. Nothing seemed forced. Even in the fast and (relatively) loud parts, there was an underlying calmness. The performance so captivated the audience that there was virtually none of the usual coughing from them during the slower and quieter parts. Strangely, though, there were a couple of points during longer movements when I felt they had gone on long enough, that they were becoming redundant, that there was no noticeable development going on. This is a feeling I've had with some late romantic pieces, but the first time I've felt that way about Mozart.

There was an amusing moment during the curtain call after the "Linz" symphony. In one of the movements there was a section where the first oboe delivered a brief solo line, then repeated it with the first bassoon following a couple of beats behind. This happened again three or four times. When Maestro Blomstedt returned to the stage during the applause, he invited them to stand for solo bows. As he headed offstage, Richard Sebring, first horn, took a handkerchief and reached across the aisle to Richard Svoboda, the bassoonist, and mopped his forehead (as if the solo had been a strenuous workout).

I'm looking forward to hearing it again. This evening's concert will be transmitted live over WCRB on air and on line at 8:00, EST. And I expect the usual rebroadcast/webstream on Monday, March 5, also at 8:00 p.m.

The reviews are in. The Globe is favorable, and the Intelligencer is enthusiastic. The photo in the Intelligencer review reminds me that Maestro Blomstedt conducted throughout without a baton, using his hands more to shape the music than to beat time strictly. He didn't even give a cut-off sign at the end of movements. He just stopped moving his hands, and the small orchestra stopped in unison. The photo also shows the unopened score on the podium during the first half of the concert. After intermission, he had an electronic device which he never opened.

Enjoy the concert!

Friday, February 23, 2018

Jeanne d'Arc au bûcher

On Saturday, February 17, I attended the fourth of Odyssey Opera's five productions this season. The season focus is on St. Joan of Arc, and this production was "Jeanne d'Arc au bûcher," ("Joan of Arc at the Stake") by Arthur Honneger. The first question might be the genre of the work. It seems that the composer called it a "dramatic oratorio." It is a work on a sacred subject with orchestra, chorus, and solo singers, but also with action. Perhaps it could be called an opera; but the connotations of the word could be misleading as to the composer and librettist's intent to write and compose a sacred work. It was composed, with a libretto by the poet Paul Claudel, in the 1930's; and a prologue was added in 1944. After the prologue, there are ten scenes giving flashbacks as Joan, at the stake, remembers her life. The eleventh scene is her death in the flames.

I didn't know what to expect, but I wasn't expecting the music to be very enjoyable, since Honegger was a "modern" composer. Preview articles and the program notes told of an eclectic style, which is also discussed in some detail in the reviews in the Globe and the Intelligencer. But as the work was performed, the music took second place to the drama, and I was never conscious of all the differing styles. Instead, for me, the music just seemed to reinforce the words and action.

As for the words and action, some of it was clear, some of it mystifying, but it all held my attention. I probably tried too hard to figure it all out while it was being played. That is one of my flaws — over-intellectualinzing artistic experience. I'd do better if I could just let it happen, experience it, and think about it later. But, as I say, it held my attention, and I consider it to have been worth seeing. I'd recommend taking in a performance if it's ever staged where you are, but to some extent the value may depend on how well it's acted and danced — yes there were also choreographed movements — and staged. Still, the dramatic oratorio is a worthwhile work.

Monday, February 19, 2018

"Express Abstractionism" Revisited

"Abstract Expressionism," by Sean Shepherd, received its world premiere performance from the Boston Symphony Orchestra on the 8th, 9th, and 10th of this month. I reported on it in my post previewing the Saturday concert. This evening I listened to the rebroadcast of the concert, and can say a bit more about it. On first hearing, February 8, I couldn't tell where the divisions between the first three movements came. This time it was clear where the first movement ended and the second began. The dividing line between Nos. 2 and 3 was still unclear.

As for the music itself, the first movement seemed more coherent than it had on first hearing. The composer was clearly working with some musical ideas, and it was interesting. While there was nothing extremely beautiful, it was fairly gentle and not unpleasant to listen to.

The second and third movements still seemed overly loud, and empty of real music. At one point, I got the idea that the percussionists might be having fun playing their parts. Some others might also be having fun playing it.

But fun for the musicians doesn't necessarily mean fun for the audience. I think of an article written in the 1950's by the composer Milton Babbitt, which was given the title, "Who Cares if You Listen." Babbitt suggested that contemporary serious music, such as his, was beyond the ability of most concert-goers to understand and appreciate — "better than it sounds," as a 19th Century wit said of Wagner. I mention this, not to suggest that Sean Shepherd shares the late Mr. Babbitt's contempt for the audience, but only to make the point that professional musicians can appreciate things which exceed the grasp of ordinary amateur listeners. Having said that, I'll also give the music the faint praise of saying that I'd much rather listen to it than the horrors by Babbitt and Elliot Carter which James Levine inflicted on us.

Surprisingly (or not because of heightened expectations), I found the fourth movement somewhat less appealing than I had at the premiere. In the hall, it had seemed calm and gentle. Maybe it was the fault of the broadcast engineer, but over the radio it seemed significantly louder, which made individual parts stand out more but concomitantly detracted from its overall beauty.

I wasn't listening with program notes in hand t try to see how the music related to the work of the visual artists who were the composer's inspiration; I was approaching it simply as music. On a third hearing, if it happened, I would try to make those associations. But for now, I'll just say that I can appreciate that Sean Shepherd had some ideas, some inspirations he tried to put into music, and he didn't utterly fail. But this listener has not been moved to want to hear it again and again, which would be necessary for the piece to have any chance of revealing that it's better than it sounds.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

BSO — 2018/02/17

It's French Impressionists this week. (Are there Impressionists from any other country?) Here's the synopsis from the BSO's program detail page (where you can also find the usual links to background information):
This all-French program features pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet in Ravel's serious, single-movement Piano Concerto for the left hand. Closing the program is a work that's long been a staple of the BSO repertoire, Ravel's ballet score Daphnis et Chloé, a tourde-[sic] force of orchestral coloration and dramatic atmosphere the composer felt was one of his best works. Opening the program are Ravel's orchestrations of two contrasting Debussy piano pieces. These concerts mark the 90th anniversary of Ravel's conducting the BSO at Symphony Hall while visiting America in 1928.
(Some emphasis added.)

This concert wasn't part of my subscription, so I have no impressions of my own to offer. The reviews are favorable. The Globe finds no fault. The Boston Musical Intelligencer finds a few bits that were less than perfect, but overall is very satisfied. That review also gives extensive information about the pieces, almost like program notes.

You can hear it all this evening, February 17, over WCRB at 8:00 p.m., Eastern time, with the usual repeat transmission at 8:00 p.m. on Monday, February 26.  Impressionists aren't my favorit figurative cup of metaphorical tea, but most people like them, so enjoy.