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Review: Boston Symphony Plays With ‘Staggering Beauty’

By Christopher Johnson, Contributing Writer, March 6, 2017

From 1918 to 1962, when it was led, sequentially, by Henri Rabaud, Pierre Monteux, Serge Koussevitsky, and Charles Munch, the Boston Symphony took a lot of affectionate ribbing as “the best French orchestra in the world.” If last Thursday’s concert at Carnegie Hall is any indication, they’ve reclaimed the mantle, and no joke about it.

The program consisted of two monuments of the French orchestral repertoire, one by Berlioz, the other by Ravel, flanking a recent vocal piece by a British composer strongly influenced by Messiaen and deeply indebted to Ravel and Boulez for his instrumentation.

About Berlioz little need be said at this late date, save that he codified the modern orchestra (if he didn’t invent it outright), and that the Symphonie fantastique was its shakedown cruise. Everything is there: virtuoso playing-techniques that still seem startling, nearly two centuries later; free integration of musical and theatrical elements; coloristic use of harmony; poetic manipulation of silence; and extreme polarities, both of tension and of expression. Ravel’s Le tombeau de Couperin quietly follows suit, half-concealing its instrumental brilliance and expressive depths behind the formal simplicities of what seems at first glance to be a pleasant little dance-suite.

George Benjamin’s new piece, a suite for countertenor, eight female voices, and small orchestra, received its New York premiere. It is perhaps best described by the program-annotator: “The countertenor’s words [eleventh-century Hebrew poems from Andalusia, sung in English translation], which the composer says are generally about mortality and the passage of time,…are contextualized by fragments from poems by the early modernist Federico García Lorca, sung [by the women’s chorus] in Spanish….These poems ring together on consonant (or poignantly dissonant) frequencies, in a superposition of times, cultures, legend-versus-history, illuminating the continuity and persistence of human concerns.”

While the performers seem to have delivered everything the score demanded, and took visible pains to do so soberly and reverently, certain basic human concerns nevertheless persisted in the hall. Bejun Mehta, the countertenor, sang beautifully, but you couldn’t make out a word of his texts unless the music moved very, very slowly. (The polysyllabic gyrations that Benjamin put him through to illustrate words like “naked” and “utterly” would have given Berlioz the giggles.) By the same token, the women’s chorus, required to sing with no vibrato, or as little as possible, created a pretty haze near the threshold of audibility, but caused physical pain at full blast. The latter may have been intentional—the text in question was translated, “Fields and skies scourged my body’s wounds”—but if so, it represents a kind of literalism that Berlioz dismissed (correctly, I think) as “antimusical” and “the height of absurdity.”

Andris Nelsons is a magnificent conductor, and if he keeps going at his current rate, he will soon be a great one. He’s not much to look at—tall and apparently ungainly, he slouches and leans against the podium, often doing little, sometimes doing nothing at all—but he has an almost infallible sense of musical shape, and a repertoire of idiosyncratic gestures that convey it perfectly. He also respects the fundamental seriousness of the music he undertakes: he played the big effects in the Berlioz for all they were worth, but he never played them for effect; the piece was thrilling and deeply unsettling, all at once, at it should be. By the same token, he seemed to realize that Ravel’s suite was intended, not just as a concise epitome of the French classical tradition, but as a series of individual memorials to friends who had died at the front in World War I, and that these sunny, gracious little pieces are still firmly grounded in mortality. The Berlioz and the Ravel were all the more moving for being presented without extra-musical nudging.

The orchestra responded with playing of staggering beauty and and sometimes breathtaking poetry. I shall not soon forget the way Berlioz’s idée fixe quietly coalesced, as if muted violins were just a slightly different inflection of the opening woodwind chord, or the way plucked strings and harp combined into a single, deep-dyed instrument in Ravel’s forlane.

This was wonderful music-making, all around. Great French orchestras are hard to come by, and great Berlioz conductors are rarer still. Good to know there’s one of each, and that they’re working together, right up the road.

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Boston Symphony Orchestra in concert at Carnegie Hall on March 2, 2017. Andris Nelsons, Music Director and Conductor. Bejun Mehta, countertenor; Lorelei Ensemble (Beth Willer, Artistic Director).

RAVEL Le tombeau de Couperin

BENJAMIN Dream of the Song (New York premiere)

BERLIOZ Symphonie fantastique


Cover: Andris Nelsons conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall; photo: Jennifer Taylor.



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