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BU’s Excellent Orchestra Assures Future of Classical Music

A review of the symphony concert in the Boston Musical Intelligencer

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The Boston University Symphony Orchestra, appearing on November 24in Symphony Hall under the direction of David Hoose, gave one of thebest performances I have ever heard from a student orchestra, wellworthy of comparison with any of the semiprofessional orchestras inthe Boston area, and a fair challenge for America’s most renownedensembles. With such excellent players and such able direction, thefuture of orchestral music in America seems well assured. Those whohave heard this orchestra before expected no less; I think it was threeyears ago when I heard the same group, with the BU Chorus, in astunning performance of Schoenberg’s Five Pieces, op. 16, and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Of course the players were different then, but the standards of the ensemble live on.

John Adams’ Fearful Symmetries — the title is from WilliamBlake’s “Tiger, tiger!” — was a work entirely new to me. It is acolorful manifestation of Adams’ so-called minimalist style — othersrefer to “process music” in connection with the manifold repetition ofpatterns, figures, and gestures that characterize Adams’ work and thatof other composers such as Philip Glass and Steve Reich. Adams hasregularly revealed a greater interest in harmony than either Reich orGlass, and this work from 1988 is a brilliant example of harmony thatevolves by unconventional but clearly perceptible connection from onesonority to the next. There was a lot of chord-pairing with dominantsevenths a minor third apart, in the Boris Godunov bell-chordmanner, no less effective for being very familiar. At other times, thecumulative effect of massed timbres resulted from upward crescendos ofparallel first-inversion triads, a wild chromatic fauxbourdon. For nearly 20 minutes all of this was maintained with a rapidsteady beat and an ebb and flow of mostly very loud textures andconstantly changing timbres with explosive gestures of color fromdifferent parts of the orchestra, fighting against the prevailingpulse. The loudest portions seemed to strain the orchestra to theutmost, and yet there was sufficient dynamic contrast to keep the earfrom tiring. Eventually the basic beat itself was submerged in longerand more varied measures, reemerging later at a softer dynamic; I wasreminded of Colin McPhee’s gentle gamelan-like orchestral sound in Tabuh-tabuhan(1936), a major ancestor of American minimalist timbre. When theentire work faded away in a quiet but still colorful ending, one stillhad the impression of relentless rapid tempo. The orchestra for thispiece was of normal proportions, with the addition of a group ofsaxophones, but there was no ordinary percussion except the timpani, asignificant workout for a single player; all the other abundantpercussion sound was provided by four keyboard synthesizers workingovertime, and adding materially to the transparent high-registerfiligree.

Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé, the complete ballet of 1912, madeup the second half of the program. I had last heard this masterpieceabout 20 years ago with the Boston Symphony and Tanglewood Chorusconducted by Ozawa, a good but not memorable performance. One recallsthat this largest work of Ravel’s was a favorite of the Boston Symphonyunder Charles Munch, whose LP recording from 1955, in a deluxe editionillustrated by Andy Warhol (!), is still treasured (RCA LM-1893). Theorchestra called for is significantly larger than Adams’ — woodwindsby fours, two harps, much percussion, and all five sections of thestrings divided two staves apiece in the score; eight contrabasses werethe complement here, as contrasted with just five in the Adams. In allthe really excellent playing that was constantly and seeminglyeffortlessly demonstrated, there were some particularly outstandingexamples: the lovely but terribly difficult oboe solo at (rehearsal no.2); the equally dangerous horn solos (nos. 44 and 48); the pairedclarinets (no. 55); and of course the famous flute solo (no. 176). Butthe flawless string sound, with even tone over the entire divisirange, was just as impressive throughout the work, including all thenumerous solos. And Ann Jones gets high credit for preparing the largewordless mixed chorus – about 120 members – with such care andassurance.

I would argue with a few points in the performance of this work thatI have always loved so well. The moment where Chloe is seized andcarried away by the invading band of pirates converts mere disturbanceinto an abrupt instant of sheer terror at m. 435 (5 after no. 66);Ravel marks this with an accelerando but at the critical moment alsowith a crescendo from f to fff in a single measure;it is sudden, not gradual. This is one of the scariest moments inMunch’s recording. I felt also that Hoose’s tempo of the beginning ofthe Danse guerrière was too fast; it made it nearlyimpossible for the trumpets and horns to execute double-tonguingcomfortably (no. 96), and the conductor found it necessary to moderatethe tempo somewhat to allow for the faster tempi yet to come (at nos.102 and 104), which ultimately came out just right. At no. 114 evenRavel could miscalculate whether the lowest register of the solo foralto flute could be heard, and it was necessary to keep theaccompanying instruments as soft as possible, but we did hear it well. It’s a good thing that Ravel omitted a metronome marking at no. 130 – Très animé means, here, as fast as possible but no faster.

Chloe’s “supplication dance” beginning (no. 133) has one of the mostunusual tempo indications in any music: odd-numbered measures aremarked 100 to the quarter and even-numbered 72 to the quarter, with “auMouvt” and “Ralenti” in alternation throughout the dance (except twicewhere Chloe tries to run away and is forcibly brought back). At theend of the dance, when Bryaxis, the pirate chief, lifts Chloe intriumph, “suddenly the atmosphere becomes unusually charged,” and anarmy of satyrs (chèvres-pieds — these “goat-footed folk” are also found in Ravel’s Trois chansonsfor chorus) surround and chase away the pirates. At the culminatingmoment, the image of the god Pan appears “with a threatening gesture.” A progression of four chords is heard, with a crescendo from mf to fff;the same chords were heard earlier, when the Pan image appeared at no.82, but the crescendo at that point only reaches the level of p.

These are small details, however, merely incidental to the praise Ihave for David Hoose’s conducting, which at every moment was superblycontrolled with acute observation and with no inessential gestures. The one element of flamboyance I noted was his omission of the baton,which I have always thought a hazard to precision, especially with anonprofessional orchestra. Not once, however, did I feel that thestick was needed on Monday night. Hoose is far more than one ofBoston’s best conductors; he could be a credit to any ensemble anywhere.

Daphnis et Chloé is one of Ravel’s greatest works,everywhere showing his harmonic and orchestral mastery at their fulleststrength. But Serge Diaghilev, who commissioned it for the DiaghilevBallets Russes, never put his authority fully behind the originalproduction, and it was not a major success of the 1912 season, whichwas otherwise dominated by Nijinsky’s very controversial version ofDebussy’s Après-midi d’un faune. Mikhail Fokine’schoreography was appreciated but it has essentially been forgotten, andlater choreographers have had even less success. Joel Sheveloff’sinteresting program notes for our performance cite an authority whosuggests that Daphnis et Chloé, as a ballet version, shouldbe done on film. I would add to that: not on a stage but outdoors in apastoral setting, as several episodes in the Bolshoi Opera’s productionof Boris Godunov managed to such excellent effect.

Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert in AlbanBerg, also Ravel and Debussy. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) andPrinceton (Ph.D., 1967), he has published extensively on these composersand many music subjects, most notably, music harmony.

 

This article was originally published in The Boston Musical Intelligencera virtual journal and blog of the classical music scene in Boston withRobert Levin, editor; Bettina A. Norton, executive editor; Lee Eiseman, publisher.

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