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Friday, October 24, 2008

Concert Review: BSO 10/23/08

French music was a unifying theme of the Boston Symphony Orchestra concert last evening at Symphony Hall. Maestro James Levine - now in his fifth season as Music Director - programmed and conducted a concert featuring the music of Messiaen, Boulez, and Berlioz.

I attended primarily to hear a live performance of the work Notations I-IV by Pierre Boulez. Because of the massive forces demanded by the score, the work is not performed very frequently.

This was the first BSO concert that I attended in the 2008-2009 season, and as in seasons past, it is always a pleasure to return to Symphony Hall. I immediately noticed one difference in the building upon entering the hall. There are now large arched transparent windows which reveal the outside world and allow sunlight to enter in. These windows had been boarded over as a precautionary "black out" during World War II. Boston never was attacked by air - but it must have been a wartime concern. Now, over 60 years later, sound-insulated glass was installed as part of a continuing building restoration project. It's amazing it has taken so long to "see the light." From where I was sitting, lights from two Back Bay skyscrapers were clearly visible through the new windows. Both of which would not have been seen in the early 20th century since these buildings were built much later.

It's not inconvenient or pricey to hear the BSO perform live. I went on a $9 "rush ticket" (see my September 25, 2008 blog post on how to get one). Perhaps it was the modern music that scared the public away, or perhaps people are concerned about the dire state of the world economy, but there were plenty of empty seats last evening. I was able to sit in my regular spot in the second balcony. It was a "jump seat" on the left side where the sound is good and I can peer over the top of the orchestra and conductor's podium.

The pre-concert talk by Robert Kirzinger was informative. There was also a fascinating exhibit of photos, manuscripts, notes, color-coded work charts, and letters for the Elliott Carter Centenary on display in the Cabot-Cahners room on the 2nd floor. The Paul Sacher Foundation of Basel provided support for this special exhibition, and I've read that a publication is due out with much of the same material. I had to squeeze past more than a few well-dressed and well-healed symphony patrons sipping away on their wine to study the detailed manuscripts hanging on the wall, but it was worth the inconvenient gymnastics. While these same items about Carter were on display during the summer at Tanglewood, I didn't get to view them (See my July 21st, 2008 blog posting for more information about the Elliott Carter festival).

The concert began with Oliver Messiaen's five movement classic for winds, brass, and percussion: Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum. It is a work that I had studied in detail during my student days. I probably wore out my phonograph recording of Bernard Haitink with the Concertgebouw Orchestra, but it's been many years since I've heard the work live. The piece is often done by student ensembles at the conservatories (For more about Messiaen see my blog post for July 2nd, 2008).

Levine, sitting on his swivel chair, took long pauses between the movements - lasting perhaps 2 or 3 minutes each - and allowed silence to nicely frame each section. These meditative articulations between sections were quite welcome, and the audience did not get restless (although a lot of coughs could be heard). It allowed one's ear to rest and the mind to prepare for what might come next in the music.

Messiaen's work draws upon his knowledge of bird song, medieval plainchant, gamelan music, Indian music, and his work as a church organist. The way he orchestrates thickly scored chords in the work result in a sound similar to the brass and wind stops of a huge pipe organ. The resonant space of Symphony Hall cooperated by reverberating joyously - if not in spirit, at least in amplitude. Amongst the musicians performing in the Messiaen piece was one of the last remaining BSO musicians that I remember from the early 1970's - percussionist, new music specialist, and Amsterdam-transplant Frank Epstein. He really rocked on a set of tam-tams, including one behind him spanning a mammoth 5-foot diameter.

During the intermission, the stage was reset for the Boulez. In preparation, the front rows had been removed from the audience of Symphony Hall, and a stage extension of about 2o feet had been added on to accommodate the massive orchestra.

Boulez's work has an interesting genesis. Notations was originally a 10 minute work for solo piano (in 12 movements) that Boulez had written in 1945 as a young composer in post-war Paris. It contains influences from Stravinsky, Schoenberg, French Impressionist composers, and Occidental music. Nearly 30 years after he re-discovered his early piano pieces, Boulez began "orchestrating" some of the movements - although the result is much more than a transcription. The orchestral version of Notations is an elaboration and orchestral expansion of ideas that existed in the original set of piano pieces. The collection of orchestral settings of Notations is an on-going work-in-progress that began with a commission in 1978, and continues with both revisions and new movements. Last night the BSO performed Notations I - IV, although Boulez completed an additional nine minute movement (Notation VII) in 1997.

To get a sense of the massive size of the orchestra, here is an instrument listing from the publishers' website for Notations I:

Although long ago I attended the American premiere of the composers' Rituel in memoriam Bruno Maderna with the NY Philharmonic, Notations is a work from the same period that has eluded me for many years. I wasn't in Boston when the composer conducted it with the BSO in 1986. I only know the work from two DVDs: one with Boulez in rehearsal with the Vienna Philharmonic and one with Daniel Barenboim conducting the work on a tour in Köln with the Chicago Symphony. The Boulez rehearsal is just that, a rough first-rehearsal of a large and complex work. Boulez is a quintessential professional, politely correcting wrong notes and fluently instructing the conservative orchestral musicians in their native language. A minor point of discussion came up during an interchange regarding trombone mutes, where Boulez resorted to the international language of English to clarify his point by saying "straight mute." Unfortunately, it is not easy to get a solid impression about the work from this rehearsal DVD. In contrast, the Barenboim performance with the Chicago Symphony seems rather good, but hearing 125 musicians play over tiny television loudspeakers probably does not convey the true concert experience. I was very eager to hear this piece up close, and live.

My expectations were very high, perhaps too high. Boulez is unquestionably one of the world's finest conductors, and a phenomenal musician. As a renowned composer with a life-time of experience conducting orchestral works of all kinds, one would assume that his sense of orchestration is formative, if not fully perfected.

After hearing Notations I-IV live, in what I would assume was a rather good and accurate rendering by Levine and the BSO, I am puzzled about the outcome. It just seems as if the work is over-orchestrated and over-saturated with notes. Notations calls for eight percussionists who never stop banging on something, and they tend to dominate the sonic gestalt. It seems as if every possible percussion instrument available is used, except for the kitchen sink (although it does call for steel pipes). A humongous string section hammers away in lines divided into countless parts while a grand piano, celesta, and three harps play intently - but entirely inaudible to the listener. I watched and paid very close attention to what the those instruments were playing, and I could not hear a single note coming from any of them. You would think that a grand piano (with an open top on half stick) could be heard over the orchestra, but not even that! I noticed that BSO recording engineer John Newton from Sound/Mirror had been very busy onstage moving microphones around, particularly in front of the celesta and three harps prior to the performance. Hopefully balances can be adjusted in the mixing room after the fact, but my overall impression of Notations is that it has issues related to orchestral clarity and dynamic balance.

It is one thing to have everyone in the orchestra join forces to create a synthesis of complex sound where the totality overrides the individual contributors. This was not the case or intention here. Other 20th-century works from the 70's by some of Boulez's contemporaries - such as György Ligeti, Luciano Berio, Elliott Carter - all posses an orchestral imagination that seems to be lacking in Notations. Even Messiaen's orchestral writing (e.g. the Turangalîla Symphony) and experimental works coming from the "Spectral" school of composers exploit the orchestra in ways that Boulez comes up short - at least in this work.

All in all, I was disappointed. It was a lot of musicians working very hard to play a lot of difficult notes for a result that was in the end rather minimal and ordinary. I could see from the tall score Levine was conducting from that it contained more music staffs than I'd like to think about, and he zipped through the pages quickly. Zillions of notes, and so little to take away from the experience.

The movement that contained a hope of interest to me was Notations II (which was played last). This fast movement gains its momentum from the brisk repetition of regularly pulsed angular rhythms arranged in irregularly grouped bars, but unfortunately the piece is over before the music has a chance to develop or grow. The brief movement is full of glissandi, clustered chords, and tremolo, but somehow the combination of pitched and unpitched percussion alternating via sharply articulated pulses provide just enough contrast to make interesting music.

The evening's concert ended with the tranquility of Harold in Italy, Opus 16 by Hector Berlioz. BSO Principal Violist Steven Ansell was the soloist.

Boston Symphony Orchestra
October 23rd, 2008
Symphony Hall
Boston, MA