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Category Archives: European Classical

The timeless, powerful form.

Tonight’s Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO) performance led by James Levine featured music from three distinct eras of Western art music. On the program was Wolfgang Amadé Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 3 performed by Nikolaj Znaider, John Harbison’s Symphony No. 2, and Robert Schumann’s Symphony No. 2 in C Major. This was an eclectic combination in my estimation, from three distinct musical periods, so an interesting bit of programming from the BSO. My friend DG (not Deutsche Grammophon) saw her first BSO performance tonight, and we ran into my friends VA and JA on the latter’s first evening back in Boston from a short sabbatical.

I believe that it is uncharacteristic for the featured soloist’s piece to be performed first on the concert program, but the Mozart was first. I heard Mr Znaider perform the Elgar Violin Concerto last season, which I enjoyed very much. I noticed again that Mr Znaider’s towering figure almost equaled Mr Levine’s podium-assisted height. I have played and am particularly familiar with Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 3, written in 1775. Strangely enough, it sounded nothing like my interpretation, and this is greatly to Mr Znaider and the BSO’s credit. I do not listen to recordings of the piece very often, so hearing the solo violin part with the full orchestra is something of a treat. I know the first movement well, and the little touches, trills, turns, and staccato peppered throughout were delightful.

I recall in high school, a friend JB was learning this piece, and there was something particularly wooden about her early attempts. It is such a lively, youthful affair, very bright, and I recall wanting to hear that out of her performance. It’s a particular quality of much of Mozart’s lighter music that I’m particularly critical of, as I was with Richard Goode’s Mozart piano concerto performance last season. Here, however, I felt that it was captured brilliantly.

The cleanness of the piece was also nearly flawless, which is difficult in some of the chord-laden passages and those involving rapid string transitions. I was somewhat underwhelmed by the cadenzas, as they were fairly short and not quite as intricate as I would have liked. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the piece very much and was delighted to hear it for the first time live with the always excellent BSO and Mr Znaider.

The second piece was Mr Harbison’s Symphony No. 2, which was written in 1987. I’m not completely clear on this programming choice to be bookended by the Mozart and the Schumann, but it provided true variety tonight, which I enjoyed. My experience with Harbison is short and easily summarized: I enjoyed his Double Concerto premiere very much but have not enjoyed Symphony Nos. 1 or 3. I admit that I arrived tonight with more than a little bit of skepticism about my reaction to Symphony No. 2, but I was determined to give it a chance. I have some more general reactions to the content of this music, since it was my first listening, but I must admit that I liked the piece, though I think DG did not. Perhaps somewhat disingenuously, I imagined it as a score to a modern film, and that helped me understand transitions between its parts a bit better. I admit that I was unaware of the transitions between the movements in this piece, and I do not believe they were immediately obvious with big breaks or grand exits and entrances.

Generally, I wonder how true it is that the meter in modern classical music is more unusual than what one might find in older music from earlier eras. By this I am referring to the difficulty in the rhythmic structure: everything appears syncopated, which gives immense difficulty for getting the timing right, and it almost sounds disorganized until this is accepted and then appreciated. I feel like out of the modern pieces I’ve heard at the BSO, including this one, this has often been the case rhythmically. I almost feel like, if all these things are true and not just my misperception, then it could be that this technique is almost over-employed. In the same way that silence is a powerful tool to convey emotion when used appropriately, I think that certain rhythmic structures and polyrhythmic structures should be used with a great deal of understanding about the responsibility of doing so. Of course, much more musically inclined persons than I, such as these modern composers, have undoubtedly considered this issue.

The final piece on the program following the intermission tonight was Schumann’s Symphony No. 2, written in 1841, the third separate musical era on the program this evening. I have heard the BSO’s performances of Symphony Nos. 1, 3, and 4 this season, and this was the completion of the Schumann symphonic cycle! Give this man a cookie! (I missed the Beethoven cycle last season, I believe, by one or perhaps two symphonies because of work conflicts. The Schumann cycle is far easier to be in attendance for.) I greatly prefer Nos. 4 and 1 to No. 3, but I would have to rank No. 2 above No. 1 (if that makes any sense at all, you can have my cookie). The 2nd starts off a bit hesitantly but soon builds to a climactic ending … of just the first movement! The Scherzo is feverish in its pace, a torrent of strings, the third movement, sweet. And the symphony just gets better and better as it continues, with the fourth and final movement being my favorite. It caps off a rather larger-than-life symphonic experience and was rendered expertly by the BSO.

Perhaps one of the strangest concerts I’ve attended at the BSO, the audience made it reminiscent of a high school orchestra performance with their clear lack of symphony etiquette on full display. The end of every movement of the Mozart and Schumann were met with hesitant applause from about a quarter of the audience. It almost seemed fitting after Mr Znaider’s performance in the first movement of the violin concerto, but even this prompted a thankfully patient glance from a swiveled Mr Levine directed toward an unsettled audience. Thankfully Mr Levine was able to suppress further applause at the end of the Adagio expressivo of the Schumann symphony, which had started in my mind to kill the mood created by the beautiful music. The applause was completely and utterly out of place when it was tendered prematurely to a dramatic pause in the final movement of the Schumann far from the end of the piece. It’s one thing to applause between movements, which I find would be best reserved for only the right circumstances and only for a particularly moving performance (such as I very much felt like doing during Joshua Bell’s Brahms but nevertheless refrained), but it’s entirely another to clap perhaps just to hear the sound of one’s own clapping, since the person or persons clearly did not know when the end of the piece was. I suspect it is this same individual who clapped nearly with the final note of the piece as well, akin to cheering during the national anthem during “O’er the land of the free” and not after the “home of the brave”. (Actually in the anthem example, this is becoming more and more commonplace.) But here this person should realize that he or she is not the only patron listening to the music, and even persons on stage were noticeably agitated by the perceived rudeness. Naturally the irony here is that clapping is a gesture of appreciation that was proffered inappropriately and lost some of its meaning.

It’s all inconsequential at the end of the day, though this marks the second performance this season with an admittedly bizarre audience participation. Overall I enjoyed the evening with DG and all of the music performed here tonight, spanning three distinct musical time periods as if they were somehow meant to be played together. It’s a truly unique experience to put a concert like this together, and the more I think about it, the more I appreciate it and want to understand (from first principles of the music) if a rationale exists behind it.

I went to the final Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO) post-Thanksgiving holiday performance of Schumann, Harbinson, and Wagner on Tuesday with my friend JFK (not that one). James Levine returned this week to lead our fine orchestra in Robert Schumann’s Symphony No. 3 “Rhenish”, John Harbison’s Symphony No. 1, and Richard Wagner’s Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde.

It was my first performance of Schumann’s Symphony No. 3, though I admit I was a bit underwhelmed by it. No. 4 remains my favorite so far, and No. 2 on Thursday will complete the Schumann symphonic cycle this season at the BSO, which I am looking forward to.

Harbison’s Symphony No. 1 was written in 1981, and therefore, it is a more modern piece. I admit I’m not the most adventurous modern classical music fan in the world, and while I enjoyed his Double Concerto premiere last season, I did not enjoy Symphony No. 3 as much earlier this year. However, the first symphony definitely had moments I appreciated, especially in the first movement, which i did enjoy. Harbison uses percussion in this piece in interesting ways, and it almost sounds like jazz drums at times behind the symphony orchestra. There’s a lot of audible turbulence in this piece, and one thing that can be frustrating and at least emotional provocative is the movement from one tense phrase to the next. There’s little if any time to fully pause and appreciate the gravity of each little piece of the movement. This is almost more of a general commentary on what I do not enjoy about a lot of modern Western art music: much of it seems to share this mood. Once again, Mr Harbison was in the audience, as we saw him disappear from his far audience right orchestra seat shortly after the conclusion of the piece’s performance, only to have him emerge on the stage for an admittedly languishing audience reception.

Again the gem of the evening came from where I least expected. While my premonition was to favor the Schumann last night, I ended up really enjoying the finale, Wagner’s Prelude and Liebestod from the opera Tristan und Isolde. I do not know the story of Tristan, despite it being well-known, but it must be a solemn affair. The BSO and Symphony Hall both performed exquisitely in this regard, wringing out the emotional intensity of the piece. In the prelude, there is a slow build that culminates in an explosion of strings, and in the silent wake of each phrase is a wrenching longing, in equal parts beautiful and painful. There are hints of a theme forming in the prelude that I hope is revisited at later times in the opera. In the Liebestod, I hear a longing that manages to retain a sense of hope. I’m not sure if this is accurate, but it too is quite a beautiful piece. I had no expectations for this piece and did not even know which Wagner would be performed, but I was delighted and now have a piqued interest in the full opera.

Overall it was a night of near-misses and small triumphs, but the surprise of finding such a great piece with which I wasn’t before familiar always makes it more than worthwhile.

Last night’s Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO) performance featured conductor Kurt Masur and Brasilian pianist Nelson Freire performing an All-Robert Schumann program in celebration of the 200th year since the composer’s birth. Schumann and his wife, Clara, were close friends with Johannes Brahms, who is perhaps my favorite composer. While I am familiar with much of Brahms’ music, I know almost none of Robert Schumann’s, not to be confused with Clara, who was a composer in her own right. But I was increasingly excited to hear this performance of Schumann, and the BSO did not disappoint. They started with Symphony No. 1 “Spring” in B-flat Major, a nice composition with which I was not too familiar, prior to this performance. I look forward to listening deeper.

The gem of the evening was the Piano Concerto in A Minor, Op. 54. I’ve heard nothing but effusive praise for Mr Freire, and with that as a background, was excited to hear him play live. It’s amazing that, dead center but all the way back in orchestra row OO well beneath the first balcony, I could still get a sense of the exquisite touch, in dynamics and especially timing. It’s always a treat to hear piano soloists at Symphony Hall: I think there might be something complex about the acoustics of a building and especially how a piano sounds in it. Looking briefly at the spectral content of a piano, it looks as if the overtones of the primary note decay at different rates, and there might be a relationship with these decay dynamics and building acoustics that makes a piano sound especially good in a particular place. In the case of Symphony Hall and (one of?) its Steinway pianos, I’ve never been drawn into the piano quite like I was during this evening’s performance, despite having heard some wonderful piano concertos here previously.

Finally, the BSO played Symphony No. 4 in D Minor, the only Schumann piece with which I was previously familiar. The third movement Scherzo has something of a feeling of a battle march that resolves in a way that I never quite expect, despite multiple listenings. But the end of the phrase always ends satisfactorily despite my alternative anticipation. It’s a great piece and my first live performance of it.

Due to a schedule miscalculation, I missed last week’s Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO) performances of Haydn and Mozart. Pianist Christian Zacharias played and conducted, which would have been a treat for the Mozart piano concertos. This following week has a few concerts, but I was unable to get tickets to either Friday or Saturday’s performances due to a busy work schedule. However, I do hope to catch the final Tuesday performance the following week, in which another Schumann symphony will be performed — I’m hoping to complete the cycle this season with the BSO.

Thirty rows back in the orchestra section, and just right of center, I sat next to two women who were attending their first Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO) performance at Symphony Hall. I was excited on their behalf and recalled my first feelings of being overcome with the powerful sound when the first notes were struck in unison by the orchestra. It’s not a difficult feeling for me to conjure, since the first note always makes me grin with giddy anticipation. Tonight’s performance, led by Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, featured Manuel de Falla’s Suite from Atlàntida and Brahms’ Symphony No. 2. I was here exactly twenty-four hours prior, about twenty rows forward, but this time my expectations were completely different. This time, I knew to listen for the Lady of the Court in El Somni D’Isabel (Isabella’s Dream) that I had loved the night before, and I wanted to hear Alexandra Coku sing the role of Isabella more closely. Well Nathalie Stutzmann’s rendition of the Lady of the Court was stunning once again. In the first line, which bookends the short section, she sings, “Dins l’Alhambra una nit, Isabel somniava” (In the Alhambra one night, Isabella had a dream). That line, in its beautiful simplicity, is cherubic. For her part, Ms Coku’s dramatic ability and vocal talent were on display as her Isabella was quite engaging.

For the Brahms, I was able to sit back and actively listen to the piece as one instrumentation, with all its sonorous riches, and naturally the BSO lived up to their reputation. While I’m not sure I was able to really understand anything about Brahms any deeper, tonight to enjoy both the Brahms and the Falla was completely satisfying.

I cannot characterize it, exactly, but there’s something about Hispanic music that is captivating. From Central and South American folk songs to Spanish dances and everything beyond, there are so many vibrant and passionate musical forms. Suffice it to say, I was pretty excited to hear the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO) led by guest conductor Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos perform Manuel de Falla’s Suite from Atlàntida, even though it was completed posthumously by his student. I have had the pleasure of hearing the fruits of Frühbeck’s work with the BSO, in which they performed music from Albéniz.

Falla’s Suite from Atlàntida is based on a Catalan poem that depicts the epic of Atlantis. Along with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, who are always a welcome addition to the Symphony Hall stage, the four soloists were contralto Nathalie Stutzmann, soprano Alexandra Coku, baritone Philip Cutlip, and thirteen year old male soprano Ryan Williams. Both Ms Coku and Mr Cutlip made their BSO debuts in this performance. I’ve written before about the wonderment of the human voice on stage at Symphony Hall, and I think many of the most memorable performances at the BSO have featured singers. This was certainly no exception, though I was quite close to the stage tonight, in the second row (H) but far audience-right. The differences in young Mr Williams’ performance and that of Ms Coku or Ms Stutzmann was striking. There is a unique quality in the child’s voice that is distinctly different from the adult’s, despite singing in similar ranges. The adult voices seem to have more color in them, so to speak, which perhaps might be manifested in a richer subharmonic stack. Nevertheless, the uniqueness of the voices was surprisingly evident.

Within this excellent piece, I was captivated by El Somni D’Isabel (Isabella’s Dream). However, it not the beautifully sung role of Isabella but the a cappella singing of the character “A Lady of the Court” by Ms Stutzmann that mesmerized me, however briefly. The quality of an unaccompanied voice reverberating alone inside the otherwise empty Hall had a dream-like quality to it, a fitting introduction to the piece.

I’m fortunate enough to be attending tomorrow night’s performance from about 30 rows back in orchestra, which should provide a wholly different experience from the intimacy of tonight’s performance. Especially hearing the vocalists from there should be a treat.

Of course, it will also affect the experience of Brahms’ Symphony No. 2, the other piece on the program for these concerts. While I just finished saying that the most memorable performances of the BSO are vocal, I also have stated before that symphonies are where the BSO truly shine. I’ve seen Brahms’ Symphony Nos. 1 and 4 performed at the BSO previously, and this gets me one step closer to completing the BSO Brahms Cycle. Hopefully Symphony No. 3 will be programmed as early as next season, but for now, I was excited about hearing Symphony No. 2 live.

Tonight, I was in a vacant row for some reason, and the row behind me was also unoccupied. It dawned on me that there might never be a chance again to perform a small, harmless experiment that technically breaks a rule at Symphony Hall …. At the intermission, I turned on my iPod kilo (also known as the iPad), and I ensured that it was fully muted, turned the brightness down to the lowest setting, and downloaded the full score of the Brahms in PDF form from International Music Score Library Project (IMSLP)’s Petrucci Library. Because I was so close to the stage, the ambient lights from the stage washed out any potentially annoying backlighting from the device, and no one was around me, so there wasn’t anyone to bother. Even page “turns” on the iPod kilo are silent, naturally, so it should not have been a distraction to anyone. I kept the score up during the performance and was able to follow along with it bar by bar. I often listen to recorded music with a score, watching the melody get handed off like a baton in a relay, and seeing how different parts interact. At first I mostly followed the violin parts, until I got a feel for how the pages were arranged on this particular score (they all seem slightly different), and soon I was able to move freely between interesting sections from each instrument. I often followed the loudest part, which is usually the melody, but it was also great fun to follow the violas and other sections that often play — you know — second fiddle to their higher pitched cousins.

I am glad that I had this rare opportunity to follow a score along with the live BSO performance, but it’s not something I need to do too often. The visual co-presentation probably helped me connect better to the music than when I watch the members of the orchestra play, since my memory is now coupled to the analytic, written music. As it happens, it’s pretty difficult to follow the music and listen to it all as a whole, and I definitely prefer to sit back and enjoy the music, while reading along was often an exercise in freneticism.

As far as the music itself, it’s Brahms and BSO. What more could I ask for? From the program notes, it seems that there is somewhat of a conflict of perception with Brahms’ Symphony No. 2. While written with a major key throughout and sounding more upbeat and pleasant than his other symphonies, it seems that Brahms’ felt that this was one of his darker, more melancholy works. The impression I got from the notes and from other reading on Brahms is that he was not one to be known so plainly, and so within a piece that others perceive as pleasant a darkness and perhaps a loneliness that only a certain disposition can detect. Admittedly it’s an abstract concept for which to listen, but one thing I like about Brahms is that it’s endlessly fascinating.

I might have mentioned somewhere else that Brahms reminds me of Charles Mingus. Both were large in both girth and personality, wore large beards, and were brilliant composers. Both Mingus and Brahms were characterized as often matter-of-fact and seemed intensely private. I’d love to explore this notion more.

I’m already looking ahead to tomorrow night’s performance. I recognize that I’m spoiled by the riches of this place, and I fully intend on taking advantage of it.


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