Friday, December 09, 2011

A Tale of Three Symphonies 1: Boston

As part of the San Francisco Symphony's Centennial season celebrations, six major orchestras from around the United States are visiting Davies Hall with two evening's worth of concerts each, including new music written expressly for their various orchestras.

This week was the turn of the 131-year-old Boston Symphony Orchestra, and I attended the second concert on Wednesday, which featured the Fourth Symphony of the contemporary composer John Harbison, the second Suite from Ravel's ballet Daphnis et Chloe, and Mahler's First Symphony. (Click here to hear the whole concert archived at Boston public station WGBH from November 26th.) I had never heard the orchestra live before, and was happily overwhelmed by the clarity of sound the huge ensemble produced, particularly the winds section who at times bordered on the supernatural.

The orchestra's historic roster of conductors over the decades have included Pierre Monteux (who later led the San Francisco Symphony), Serge Koussevitzky, Charles Munch, and Erich Leinsdorf. Seiji Ozawa left the San Francisco Symphony and took over in Boston in 1973 where he remained for the next 29 years, reportedly overstaying his welcome by a number of years. James Levine, the Metropolitan Opera Musical Director, became the orchestra's first American-born leader in 2004, and the collaboration was reportedly a happy one until Levine's health problems knocked him from the podium over the last couple of years. Currently, the music director role at the orchestra is in a state of flux, so for this tour of San Francisco and other points south in California, the BSO asked Ludovic Morlot (the blonde above center and below right) to temporarily lead the ensemble.

The 37-year-old Morlot is a Frenchman who studied in France, England and America, becoming the Assistant Conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 2004 to 2007, and has just started his new post as the Music Director of the Seattle Symphony among other appointments. He very much seems to be on his way, and from the evidence of this concert, the success is deserved.

The BSO started a cycle of performances last year of all of New England composer John Harbison's symphonies, which will culminate in the world premiere of his sixth symphony next month. Harbison wrote his first symphony for the BSO as part of their own centennial season thirty years ago, his second symphony for San Francisco in 1987, and the third for Baltimore in 1991. He dedicated most of the next dozen years to his opera The Great Gatsby, which premiered at the New York Metropolitan to "a very mixed reception," and then embarked on the fourth symphony in 2003 for the Seattle Symphony.

The five movement, 30-minute piece starts with a hard-charging short fanfare that almost sounded like John Adams in his Harmonielehre phase. After that, the symphony meanders all over the place, and while always never less than interesting and well-written, I confess to just not liking Harbison's music, which flirts with jazz and atonalism while studiously avoiding beauty or fun. Still, it was good to hear, and the performance was energetic and committed.

The short Ravel suite that followed was stunning, and even though this music can be boring from its oversaturation on concert programs and radio, I will always remember the sound of this fifteen minutes and particularly Elizabeth Rowe (above center) on solo flute morphing herself into a babbling brook in the center of a huge, clear ensemble.

The Mahler First is a favorite piece of music, but as the gentleman sitting next to me in First Tier said, "There used to be 11 classical music stations in New York in the 1960s when I lived there, and at any one time the Brahms First was playing on at least two of them. That's what is happening with Mahler's First these days." Morlot conducted the piece almost as if it was Shostakovich (a major Mahler admirer), with whip-snap endings to musical phrases, and though it's not the way I'd like to hear the piece all the time, it was an exciting, convincing performance. And oh, the sound of that orchestra.


jolene said...

Thanks for this review! Elizabeth Rowe was my flute teacher in high school - and it's so amazing to have followed her career thus far. I was really wanting to go see her perform the Elliot flute concerto, but my schedule did not permit me to go. I'm glad that you wrote a few words about her, she is a stunning performer (and she looks the same as she did when she was in college!).

Civic Center said...

Dear Jolene: Elizabeth Rowe was your flute teacher? What the hell are you doing becoming an obstetrician when you are so obviously supposed to become an artist?

jolene said...

Hi Mike - I was so tempted; I did get into USC after I auditioned for flute for college (that's also where Elizabeth went to undergrad) but decided to become a doctor instead. I also got a full scholarship to the SF Ballet school when I was little and I turned that down too! What the hell was I thinking. Elizabeth is amazing, isn't she? A rare talent.

Thankfully my ob/gyn rotation is over, and I'm currently playing doctor as a student in internal medicine for the moment. I am enjoying living vicariously through your blog, and can't wait to be back in a theater soon.

Lisa Hirsch said...

As an ex-flutist, I attest to the greatness of Rowe's playing. Both the Carter and Ravel were fantastic, and MAN, the Ravel was overall the most beautiful 15 minutes of pure sound I've ever heard. Well, okay, I can think of one exception: William Eddins somehow got an incredible sound out of the Berkeley Symphony in his audition concert a few years ago. Oh, alright, Runnicles in Tristan....