British composer/conductor/pianist Thomas Adès joins the BSO family in the role of "Artistic Partner" this season, collaborating with the orchestra and its musicians in a variety of capacities. In these concerts he conducts his own 2013 Totentanz ("Dance of Death") for mezzo-soprano, baritone, and orchestra. Set to a text accompanying a 15th-century German frieze depicting Death (represented by the baritone) dancing with individuals from all strata of humanity (represented by the mezzo-soprano), the work is both macabre and funny-the Dance of Death is the one dance none of us may refuse. Opening the program is Britten's dramatic early orchestral work, Sinfonia da Requiem, premiered by the New York Philharmonic in 1941 during Britten's time in the U.S. as a conscientious objector. (Its performance soon afterward by Serge Koussevitzky and the BSO led directly to Koussevitzky's commissioning Britten's opera Peter Grimes.) Also on the program is the great Finnish composer Jean Sibelius's late tone poem Tapiola, which atmospherically depicts the realm of the forest spirit Tapio from the Finnish epic Kalevala.Immediately preceding that synopsis is a link to a video made at the time of the world premiere of "Totentanz" three years ago. There is a four minute discussion of the piece with the composer/conductor, followed by the actual premiere performance. I think the discussion gives some idea of the concept of the work; while the performance itself can give a preparation no written notes can do. It can also give a nice opportunity to review the piece. There are also the usual links to performer bios, program notes, and podcasts. Fortunately, the program notes give the text this time. The English translation comes after the German original. You might want to read the German along with the video, which has English subtitles, and then follow along in English during the live performance.
The reviews in the Globe and the Boston Musical Intelligencer are limited to descriptions of the music, with almost no comments on how well it had been performed. That is natural enough, since none of the pieces is familiar. When you don't know a piece, it's hard to say whether it is being done well.
I was in the audience on Thursday and I found it all interesting. "Tapiola" was the most accessible: Sibelius composed in a "late Romantic" style. The "Sinfonia da Requiem" had clear contrasts of mood between the three parts, and while the middle section was fairly harsh, the outer parts weren't bad. All of them seemed to fit the mood of the texts that supplied their titles. "Totentanz" was difficult to appreciate simply as music, but it was interesting to get some sense of the different types of music for the different individuals. Still, it may require several hearings to be able to really "get" the music and maybe even enjoy it.
As always, you can hear it all via WCRB on Saturday, November 5 at 8:00 p.m. Boston Time, with a repeat on Monday the 14th. There is a page on their website with a link to the podcast "The Answered Question," with a lot about this concert, including a very informative discussion with Thomas Adès over the first 19 minutes (after a brief introduction). You might also want to check out the remaining concert schedule for this season and poke around the website for other things they do.