Thursday, November 27, 2014

BSO — 2014/11/25-29

This week's Boston Symphony concerts are the last before January. December is taken up by Holiday Pops. The program looked to me like something of a filler, but the reviews are telling me it's really worth hearing. Leonidas Kavakos is conductor and violin soloist in music of Bartók, Haydn, and Mussorgsky. Here's the description of the program from the orchestra's performance detail page:
The Greek-born violin virtuoso Leonidas Kavakos returns to the BSO as both soloist and conductor in Béla Bartók's Two Portraits for violin and orchestra, which the BSO has never performed. The yearning Portrait No. 1 is an arrangement of the first movement of the composer's first, long-suppressed violin concerto; the brief second Portrait is an arrangement of a quick, waltzing piano bagatelle. Kavakos also leads Joseph Haydn's Symphony No. 82 in C, The Bear, one of the six so-called "Paris" symphonies he wrote in the mid-1780s for that city as his international reputation grew. Its nickname, not the composer's own, apparently comes from the droning figure at the start of the finale, which suggested, to a later arranger, music for a dancing bear. Completing the program is Ravel's familiar arrangement of Mussorgsky's kaleidoscopic Pictures at an Exhibition, a suite of highly characterized musical reactions to fantastical paintings.
(Some emphasis added)
Go to that page also for links to audio and written material about the music and performer bio for Maestro Kavakos. There was a very favorable review in this (Thursday) morning's Boston Globe, but I can't find it on the internet version of the paper. The review in the Boston Musical Intelligencer is mixed, but very favorable toward the final movement of the Haydn, and enthusiastic, as was the Globe, for the Mussorgsky.

In the light of the reviews, I'm looking forward to it all. I should be able to hear the Bartók and Haydn during WCRB's live broadcast on Saturday at 8:00 p.m., before my brother's weekly call from Japan. The Mussorgsky will have to wait for the rebroadcast on Monday, December 8, also at 8:00. If you're outside the broadcast area, you can listen over the web. The station's BSO page has links to an interview with Maestro Kavakos about the concert and to material about other concerts as well as the season BSO broadcast schedule. As noted above this is the final concert until January. At this point, I don't know what will fill the time slots between December 8 and January 10. Past practice would suggest they'll be rebroadcasting concerts from Tanglewood or prior years, but we'll just have to wait and see. Meanwhile, I'm looking forward to this one.

Friday, November 21, 2014

BSO — 2014/11/20-22 (Updated)

I heard this week's Boston Symphony program on Thursday. It consists of two 21st century works, followed by two from 20th century Russian composers, with the intermission coming between the third and fourth pieces. The BSO performance detail page gives us the story:
Andris Nelsons demonstrates his thoughtful, adventurous programming with this wide-ranging selection of works. He and the BSO are joined by cellist Yo-Yo Ma for Prokofiev's Symphony-Concerto for cello and orchestra, whose title suggests the symphonic nature of the score. Nelsons also leads the BSO's first world premiere and BSO commission of the season, a new work ["Lakes Awake at Dawn"] for chorus and orchestra by the conductor's Latvian compatriot Eriks Ešenvalds, who has secured a strong international reputation especially for his choral works. Opening the program is John Harbison's choral scherzo Koussevitzky Said:. Written for the 75th anniversary of Tanglewood and premiered there in 2012, this short piece sets words about music by the BSO's great former music director, Serge Koussevitzky. Setting Konstantin Balmont's Russian translation of Edgar Allan Poe's poem The Bells, Rachmaninoff's work for vocal soloists, chorus, and orchestra is considered one of his highest achievements. The BSO has only performed this great work on one other occasion, in subscription concerts in 1979.
(Some emphasis added.)

The performance detail page also has the usual links to program notes (including texts of the three sung pieces), audio previews, a video podcast about the Prokofiev and the Ešenvalds pieces, and performer bios (including chorus and its conductor as well as soloists in the Rachmaninoff).

The Boston Globe review was almost entirely about the works, rather than the performances, but everything it does say about the performances is approving. So far, there has been no review in the Boston Musical Intelligencer. When I see one, I'll add the link.* While none of the music is "must hear" to my taste, none of it was a chore to listen to, either. The Harbison is a lot of fun (and the Globe reviewer thinks it is important in a way). The composer was in the audience and stood for a well deserved bow. I had heard it when it was broadcast from Tanglewood two years ago. The rest of the concert was new to me. "Lakes Awake at Dawn," receiving its world premiere, was calm in many places, earnest, and musically better than one would expect of new music. The Prokofiev concerto was quite powerful, not without its pleasant moments, vigorously played by Yo-Yo Ma. After intermission "The Bells" was a powerful setting of the poem in four sections, with a soloist for three of them and the chorus alone in the third section. The singers all did well, as did the chorus, and the music itself was fine.

As always, you can listen live Saturday evening at 8:00 or Monday December 1, over WCRB radio or streaming. The station's BSO page has the entire remaining BSO broadcast schedule for this season as well as links to interviews about this and other concerts and to concerts now available for on demand listening.

* Edited to add: The BMInt has a very positive and descriptive review. At least it's in time for the rebroadcast on Dec. 1.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Boston Baroque — Monteverdi Vespers

On Friday evening I attended a performance by Boston Baroque of Monteverdi's 1610 composition "Vespro della Beata Vergine." It was the first time I had attended a live performance, although I've known of it for approximately 40 years. I was staying at my grandmother's one Saturday evening so she wouldn't be alone when my uncle was away, and I listened to the Boston Symphony concert broadcast. It was the Vespro della Beata Vergine, conducted by their Assistant Conductor, Michael Tilson Thomas.

I had gradually become familiar with baroque music — Handel, Vivaldi, Bach, Marc-Antoine Charpentier, perhaps Gabrieli — but I had never heard anything like the Vespers: the use of chant (with which I was familiar from my time at St. Anselm Abbey) to underlay florid passages, the vocal technique of rapid staccato on a single note, the "echo" repetitions. Listening to it felt like discovering a new musical world. Since then I've bought several recordings of the work, and it still fascinates.

So I was glad to see that it was to be performed this week in Boston. The performance was very satisfying. The soloists all sang well (although the sopranos seemed to be coquettish in their facial expressions and body language, which was unfortunate), and apart from some pitch trouble with the cornet toward the end, the orchestra was fine as well. The audience rightly gave the performers a prolonged ovation.

Here are a couple of samples to give you some idea of what so astounded me.

This is the introductory verse of the vespers:
I wonder what is was like the first time this was performed to have all that suddenly explode upon the traditional chanting of the opening words.

Next comes the first psalm, Psalm 110:
Here after the first line is given in the traditional chant, we here the bass delivering the chant for every second verse under the florid music of the rest of the ensemble.

Later comes the Motet "Duo Seraphim" based on Isaiah 6:3, and 1 John 5:7 in the Vulgate (The Johannine Comma):
This contains the staccatos on a single note, which I had never heard before.

There are several videos of the whole thing, and if this has whetted your appetite for it, you can find links easily enough, But at any rate, I think these excerpts should give some idea of what hit me that Saturday evening decades ago. I've given url's because I'm not sure the videos will play from the embeds.

Friday, November 14, 2014

BSO — 2014/11/13-18

Music Director Andris Nelsons is back on the podium this week with works of Tchaikovsky, contemporary Aussie composer Brett Dean, and Stravinsky — one of Tchaikovsky's least known works, the American premiere of the Dean, and one of Stravinsky's best known. Trumpeter Håkan Hardenberger solos in the Dean. Here are some details from the BSO's performance detail page:
Andris Nelsons is joined here by another close collaborator, masterful Swedish trumpet virtuoso Håkan Hardenberger, for the American premiere of Brett Dean's trumpet concertoDramatis personae. The Australian-born, Grawemeyer Award-winning composer wrote this concerto for Hardenberger, who gave its first performance in August 2013 in Austria. The idea of the title refers to the soloist's position as dramatic protagonist. Inspired by one of literature's most recognizable protagonists, Tchaikovsky's symphonic poem Hamlet, which opens the program, is one of the composer's several intensely Romantic works based on Shakespeare. Stravinsky's groundbreaking, still-thrilling ballet score The Rite of Spring, an orchestral tour de force, closes these concerts.
In addition to the usual links to audio previews, program notes, and performer bios, the page also has an essay discussing the music of "Rite of Spring."

I was there on Thursday and liked the concert. The opening and concluding pieces had places where soloists within the orchestra had a chance to shine, and shine they did, for which they were warmly applauded. Whole sections did yeoman duty as well. The Tchaikovsky "Hamlet" has been played five times by the BSO, the latest performances taking place in 1968. It may not be the finest thing Tchaikovsky ever composed, but it deserves to be heard more frequently that once in 46 years. There's plenty of good music in it evoking various elements of the play, and the orchestra seemed in good form for it. If nothing else, you should listen to the concert for this piece. Who knows when you'll get another chance?

After reading the program note, I was prepared to find the Dean concerto unpleasant and unlikeable. Well, it isn't pleasant in the way Haydn is, but I found it listenable, if gruff. The first movement at times seemed jazzy, and the second was mostly quiet and relaxed. Toward the end of the third movement, I was very much reminded of a certain American composer of an earlier generation. He's mentioned in the lukewarm Globe review, but not in the program note, and it was such a pleasant surprise to hear that part that I won't mention the name. So if you don't read the Globe review until after the concert, you can enjoy the surprise too. It's a really march-like bit, and you'll probably smile even if you don't catch the similarity. The Stravinsky was played clearly, so that one could hear everything that was going on, and I think the soloists as well as the sections and the whole orchestra earned the rousing applause and cheers they got — with Maestro Nelsons taking such care to acknowledge them separately that there was only one curtain call, lasting several minutes.

So I definitely recommend listening to this concert, at least up to the intermission, over WCRB radio or internet. It will probably help with the Dean concerto if you prepare for it by listening to the Brian Bell interview and reading the program notes from the BSO program detail page and listening to the Nelsons and Hardenberger interviews from WCRB's BSO page. Having some idea of what it was all about definitely helped me appreciate it. As usual, it will be available live on Saturday at 8:00 p.m., and recorded on Monday, November 24, also at 8:00 p.m.

Note: As of this writing, the Boston Musical Intelligencer hasn't yet published a review. When I see it, I'll edit this post to include at least a link. So if you see this note and are curious about what BMInt says, you can check back here later.

Edited November 19 to add: Here's the review in the Boston Musical Intelligencer, favorable to the Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky, not to the Dean.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

BSO — 2014/11/06-11 (Somewhat Belated)

Toward the end of last week, I was quite busy with other matters, so I didn't get to post anything about last Saturday's broadcast before it happened. But as regular readers know, the concert will be rebroadcast and streamed over WCRB on Monday, November 17, at 8:00 p.m. Boston Time. It is also being performed again in Symphony Hall this evening at 8:00, so if what you see here piques your interest and you live near enough, you can pop over and listen live.

The program consists of two works. Here is how the BSO's performance detail page describes it:
New BSO Music Director Andris Nelsons returns for his second series of 2014-15 concerts, joining forces with several longtime collaborators for music with a Scandinavian and Slavic accent. This program features acclaimed Latvian violinist Baiba Skride, a compatriot and contemporary of the conductor, as soloist in Russian composer Sofia Gubaidulina's Offertorium-a piece recorded by the BSO in 1988 and considered one of the most important 20th century concertos for the instrument. Gubaidulina's music is strongly affected by her spirituality, making use of the modern era's wealth of expressive techniques. Closing the concert is Finnish composer Jean Sibelius's Second Symphony, a work of remarkably pastoral temperament that remains one of his most beloved works.
(Some emphasis added.)

There are the usual links to program notes, audio previews, and performer bios on the performance detail page.

The Boston Globe reviewer gives considerable attention to explaining the piece itself, which is useful, and not so much to the actual performance. He finds nothing to criticize about either, and he is also satisfied with the Sibelius. The review in the Boston Musical Intelligencer has a lot of detail about Maestro Nelsons' conducting as it was the reviewer's first time seeing him conduct. Like the Globe reviewer, he admired the violinist's playing, and also briefly noted his satisfaction with the Sibelius.

The concert was not part of my subscription, so  I didn't hear it on Thursday. When I started listening on the radio on Saturday, the Gubaildina concerto was already in progress, and what I heard was not really very pleasant. Maybe it wasn't supposed to be. It became calmer and easier on the ear as it approached the end. If I read the program notes, which I hope to do, perhaps I'll appreciate it more. I'll listen to the rebroadcast, but I won't spend the money and make the effort of going in to Boston to hear it in the hall. I do like the Sibelius symphony, but I've heard it a number of times, so I don't need to attend for its sake. This isn't an easy decision. I really like to give myself the chance to hear new music, and the idea of the Gubaidulina is interesting, so going tonight is an attractive idea. But I don't quite need to be there.

As always, WCRB's BSO page has links to a lot of material about this concert and others. Check it out.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

BSO — 2014/10/30-11/04

This week the two S's, Sibelius and Schubert (or three if you count Symphony). Here's how the orchestra's performance detail page puts it:
Spanish conductor Juanjo Mena, chief conductor of the BBC Philharmonic, is joined by the fine German violinist Frank Peter Zimmermann for Sibelius's great Violin Concerto. The Finnish composer wrote this work between 1902 and 1905, and Richard Strauss led the premiere of the definitive version. A violinist himself, Sibelius is said to have worked out his one-time ambition to become a concert virtuoso with this three-movement concerto, which features the composer's distinctive, Finnish folk music-influenced flavors in a work by turns fiery and lyrical. Franz Schubert wrote his towering orchestral masterpiece, the so-calledGreat C major symphony, toward the end of his short life. Its exact dates have never been established, but he wrote this formally and harmonically innovative piece at around the same time Beethoven wrote his Ninth Symphony.
(Some emphasis added.)

As always, the page has links to audio previews, program notes, and performer bios.

I was in the hall for Thursday's performance, and I enjoyed it a lot. The cadenza in the middle of the first movement of the Sibelius did not seem as long as the program note led me to expect. Come to think of it, nothing seemed long. Even the Schubert never seemed overlong. Every moment was welcome. There are pieces in which I have found myself thinking, "Enough!" but despite this symphony's oft-remarked length, it never felt like too much. There may have been a few technical lapses along the way, but nothing serious, nothing that could spoil the enjoyment of an evening of good music well played. (I'm beginning to wonder if I have some hearing loss. The brass don't overpower as they used to and the various sections of the orchestra seem more distinct. But reviewers have remarked on the latter phenomenon, so I hope it's the conductors who get the credit.)

For technical explanations, I turn to the published reviews. First, the Boston Globe. Then there is this from the dissatisfied reviewer in the Boston Musical Intelligencer. Maybe it was the speed that helped with the Schubert. It certainly never dragged, as it sometimes seems to.

You can form your own opinions if you listen this evening or November 10 at 8:00 p.m. over WCRB on air or via web stream. The station also has their own Boston Symphony page with symphony broadcast schedules and links to on-demand concerts from the past 12 months and lots of interviews.