This week we have co-conductors. Vladimir Jurowski was scheduled to conduct but he "has been forced to withdraw" (by whom? — an insert in the program booklet cites visa problems), and Ken-David Masur, who conducted in place of Tugan Sokhiev two weeks ago, will be at the podium for most of the concert: works of Debussy, Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun; Liadov, From the Apocalypse; and Stravinsky, Suite from "The Firebird." A piece by Sir Harrison Birtwistle, Responses: Of sweet disorder and the carefully careless, which is getting its American premiere, will be conducted by Stefan Asbury, who conducted the world premiere in Munich last year, with Pierre-Laurent Aimard performing the piano solo, as he did at the world premiere.
Amazingly, the BSO performance detail page doesn't include the titles of the pieces other than the Birtwistle in the little blurb I usual copy — which is why I've listed them all. But it does have the usual links to notes, audio previews, and performer bios. The interview with Harrison Birtwistle is fairly technical, but the audio preview of the concert gives some insight into the new piece. The program notes are heavy on Birtwistle's music in general, with a brief synopsis of "Responses."
I was at the concert on Thursday. My favorite piece was the Liadov, the most traditional of the evening, which opened the second half. It had elements that sounded like Russian church music as well as parts that corresponded to the apocalyptic imagery of the text the composer had in mind. The Stravinsky isn't bad. The Debussy was never one of my favorites, but it's certainly tolerable. An acquaintance said she was disappointed in the performance, calling it dry, if I recall her word correctly. She remembered a long-ago BSO principal flautist as performing the solos much better.
As for the Birtwistle, it was not unpleasant to hear, but it didn't seem to amount to much. On first hearing it didn't seem that there was much coherence. I don't mean it was start and stop. The notes kept on coming; they just didn't seem to have much to do with each other. But during intermission I encountered the composer and sincerely told him that I was looking forward to hearing the piece again during the radio broadcast. (I was thinking that maybe additional hearings will make it more accessible.) But now I remember that I have a dinner engagement on Saturday evening, so I probably won't get to hear it until the rebroadcast on February 23.
The Boston Globe review gives the reviewer's description of the piece, as well as a few words on the rest of the program, but spends a lot of space lamenting the change in conductors. Apart from a vague quibble with how the Stravinsky was played, the reviewer seemed content with the performance. The review has a link to an interview with the composer which may give additional insight into the piece. As usual, the review in the Boston Musical Intelligencer, without the space constraints of the Globe, is much more detailed and useful as a preview. I thought the reviewer put it very well when he wrote that "the density of [Birtwistle's] material, the speed with which it appears, and the complexity of its evolution make for a serious listening challenge indeed." The remainder of his comments seem well put and apposite. It seems he, too would like to hear it again. I wonder if what he calls "wah-wahs" are what sounded to me like "oink-oinks."
Anyway, I'm glad I was there. In fifty years, I'll be able to tell people I was present for the American premiere of the Birtwistle. If you listen to WCRB on Saturday at 8:00, you'll be able to brag that you heard the American broadcast premiere. I hope you'll listen in on radio or internet and see what you think. The station's BSO page has a 25 minute preview with Sir Harrison and with Ken-David Masur, who conduct the other three pieces.
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