BSO, Frühbeck de Burgos team up for a cheerful evening of murder and war

February 22, 2013 at 1:49 pm

By David Wright

Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos leads the BSO, soloists and Tanglewood Festival Chorus in Haydn’s “Mass in Time of War” Thursday night at Symphony Hall. Photo: Stu Rosner

Thursday night in Symphony Hall, the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos performed music associated with a murder plot and war—and a good time was had by all.

Since the murder story was Stravinsky’s Pulcinella, a farcical ballet about the commedia dell’arte clown who is so attractive to the ladies that jealous suitors conspire to do him in, and the “war” piece was Haydn’s Mass in Time of War, a celebration in C major with a few trumpet-and-drum effects at the end, it added up to one of the cheeriest BSO programs in recent memory.

Leaning forward in his low swivel chair, Frühbeck was the hands-on conductor in both works, firmly beating time with a long baton, and exhorting the sections to take their turns in the spotlight.  A familiar figure to BSO players and audiences during the orchestra’s present “era of the guest conductor,” Frühbeck seemed to slip the orchestra on like a favorite glove.

Pulcinella is plainly the work of a composer in love, as Stravinsky himself admitted.  Asked by the ballet impresario Diaghilev to stitch together a dance pastiche from bits of music thought to be by G.P. Pergolesi (1710-1736), the scary modernist composer of Le Sacre du printemps and L’histoire du soldat fell hard for the tuneful Baroque trifles, and created a score almost guaranteed to make the listener do likewise.

Not only were the melodies of Pergolesi (and most likely others) fetching in themselves, but Stravinsky freshened them up with bright, shiny scoring (lots of piccolo) and gently modernized harmonies.  Excerpts from Pulcinella have gone on to fame as an orchestral suite and as Suite Italienne, a staple of violin and cello recitals.

To hear a performance of the entire score, however, is to appreciate how artfully Stravinsky strung together and contrasted orchestral sonorities, tempos, and keys to create a refreshing 40-minute musical experience, with none of the longueurs that usually occur while listening to a complete ballet without dancers.

Old and new, sentimental and acerbic, Pulcinella is a veritable playground of musical interpretation.  Performances have ranged from comfy and tuneful like a Broadway cast album to hard-edged, astringent reminders of L‘histoire.  Frühbeck steered a middle course, happy to take advantage of the creamy blend of the BSO winds in movements like the Gavotte with variations, but encouraging plenty of bite in the trumpet and trombone solos.  He gave all the music a lively rhythmic foundation, and none of the brief movements overstayed its welcome.

Pulcinella is billed as a “ballet with song,” and indeed three singers joined the orchestra in the pit—or, at this performance, behind the second violins—to add their distinctive timbre and a touch of love poetry to the mix.  On Thursday night, tenor Matthew Polenzani skillfully characterized his solos, smoothly intertwining with oboist John Ferrillo in the plaintive Serenata, and later barking out the rapid-fire Presto, Una te fallan zembrecce.  Mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill and bass-baritone David Pittsinger (substituting for the indisposed Ildebrando D’Arcangelo) brought tonal clarity and sensitive phrasing to their solos.

The title Haydn himself gave his Mass in C major, “Mass in Time of War,” might lead one to expect a dark meditation on human nature like Britten’s War Requiem, or perhaps a bit of patriotic over-enthusiasm like Wellington’s Victory by Beethoven.  In fact, the work was commissioned in 1796 by a top official in the Imperial War Ministry to celebrate his son’s ordination as a priest, and it strikes a mostly festive note; its occasional martial touches of trumpet and timpani (it is sometimes called Paukenmesse, or “Kettledrum Mass”) could be as much a nod to its patron as an echo of those Napoleonic times.

By this time, Haydn was back from his two long sojourns in London, where he had greatly advanced the symphonic idiom in orchestral color and depth.  In their use of the orchestra, key relationships, and pacing, his late masses are conceived like symphonies, while the inclusion of chorus and vocal soloists splendidly broadens their scope.

On Thursday, Frühbeck kept the symphonic design in view as he moved the performance smartly forward.  There were many moments of outstanding energy and rhythmic verve, such as the brilliant string playing in the Gloria and the exciting choral Amens.  A little more exploration of the softer side—a more graceful minuet tempo in the Benedictus, for example—would have provided welcome contrast.

Frühbeck engaged the Tanglewood Festival Chorus right at the top, virtually forming the soft phrases of Kyrie eleison in the air with his hands, and they took it from there, singing with admirable intonation and diction throughout, blending smoothly in chordal passages and deftly handling contrapuntal moments such as the call-and-response of Quoniam tu solus sanctus.

The three soloists in the Stravinsky were joined for the Haydn by soprano Alexandra Coku, and together they made an ensemble well matched for tonal clarity and uniform tone throughout their range.  In her solos, Coku’s top notes tended to spread and go out of control, but she controlled that tendency in ensembles.  Mezzo-soprano Cargill phrased beautifully at all pitches and dynamics, and tenor Polenzani sang the Osanna ringingly without forcing.  Bass-baritone Pittsinger had plenty of carrying power in the Qui tollis, though his tone was a little dry and lacking in warmth.

There were many moments during the Haydn that a listener could feel one component of the performance–conductor, orchestra, chorus, or soloists–giving the others a jolt of energy. No wonder the musicians applauded each other so heartily during the bows.

The program will be repeated 1:30 p.m. Friday and 8 p.m. Saturday and Tuesday.  bso.org; 617-266-1200.

Posted in Performances


One Response to “BSO, Frühbeck de Burgos team up for a cheerful evening of murder and war”

  1. Posted Feb 23, 2013 at 6:53 pm by Anna Shlimovich

    This for me was one of the most unexciting concerts this season, although I had anticipated a lot. Pulcinella was conducted without any particupal expression, and sounded dull. Cargill’s voice did not fit the part of a soprano, she sounded more like alto at times and somewhat unpleasantly.
    Haydn was an interesting relatively unknown piece, but with great voices would probably shine. Soprano was a huge disappointment. I was quite critical about Fiorenza Cedolins there, but she was infinitely more superior to Alexandra Coku. In fact, listening to the whole ensemble, a scary thought that Boston Symphony is becoming not a world-class venue crept in my mind…We already lost Boston Opera, and the upcoming Cosi fan Tutte will be mutilated to singing in English…
    One also wonders why in the year of Verdi’s jubelee we do not have “Un Ballo in Maschera”, an opera taking place in Boston!
    I only hope that the upcoming Wagner’s programme with Daniele Gatti will sing gloriously…