Masur, BSO bring Chin’s evocative “Mannequin” to powerful life

November 6, 2015 at 10:16 am

By Aaron Keebaugh

Unsuk Chin's" Mannequin" was given its U.S. premiere Thursday night by Ken-David Masur and the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

Unsuk Chin’s” Mannequin” was given its U.S. premiere Thursday night by Ken-David Masur and the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

The influence of writer E. T. A. Hoffmann reaches deep into musical history. The dark, fantastical stories of the German writer inspired many a composer not only in his own time—the early nineteenth century—but through to this day.

One prominent contemporary composer to come under the writer’s influence is Unsuk Chin, whose four-movement Mannequin for orchestra takes as its theme Hoffmann’s story “The Sandman.” 

Mannequin made its American premiere Thursday night at Symphony Hall in a concert with assistant conductor Ken-David Masur leading the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

Chin, who originally hails from Seoul, South Korea, has established a fine reputation for her work with orchestral and electronic music. Mannequin is her second work for the BSO, following her Cello Concerto, which received its American premiere by cellist Alban Gerhardt in February 2011. 

A co-commission by the BSO, and the Danish National and Melbourne Symphony orchestras, Mannequin is a bracingly colorful score that effectively captures scenes from Hoffmann’s eerily current tale of artificial life forms.

The fantastical story revolves around a boy named Nathaniel who witnesses his father and an assistant craft a host of artificial materials, including human skulls and a woman made of clock parts. Mannequin, which clocks in at 22 minutes, is no literal retelling of the story. Rather, it conjures the otherworldly dreamscapes and nightmarish visions of Hoffmann’s text.

Running through the four movements is a gossamer coat of percussion effects as the score calls for a mammoth-sized orchestra and nearly fifty different percussion instruments, which include bells, shakers, and whistles of all kinds.

The piece opens with a wash of twinkling bells and ratchets that resemble the sound of a wind-up toy. A glassy sheet of string harmonics, which floats overhead, slowly transforms into agitated figures for strings and winds that dart every which way. The climax of the movement features penetrating sheets of sound that glide from one section of the orchestra to another.

The second movement opens in a ponderous tempo, where bristly figures in the strings freeze into prickly dissonances. Great brass calls sound out of the texture, gradually coalescing into angular riffs that recall the similar writing in David Del Tredici’s An Alice Symphony.

The final two movements are connected without pause and pulse with rhythms drawn from shakers, wood blocks, and violin pizzicatos. The pulses grow into thick sonorous walls, culminating in a crescendo that seemed to grow from the ground up.

At its height, Mannequin creaks, grinds, groans, and shimmers. It’s a powerful, evocative work, and the BSO, under Masur’s thoughtful direction, delivered a bold and memorable performance.

The concert opened with Liszt’s Totentanz, which featured Louis Lortie as soloist.

The French-Canadian pianist boasts an extraordinary technique, and Liszt’s gnarly set of variations on the Dies irae chant is familiar territory. He gave a performance that was powerful, viscerally exciting, and yet poetic when called upon. The pianist laid on the thunder for the brash opening and earth-shaking bass parts that pepper the score. Elsewhere, his playing was spacious, especially in the canon, where the lines flipped and folded over one another gently.

Masur coaxed generous support from the orchestra, who supplied a sturdy counterweight to Liszt’s rippling piano phrases.

Since being appointed assistant conductor of the BSO last year, Ken-David Masur has made a firm impact in Symphony Hall and Tanglewood. He is an animated figure on the podium, leading with wavelike gestures and a host of contorted stances, such as deep knee bends, crouches, and lunges.

Such movements yet drew a nuanced and focused performance of Schumann’s Symphony No. 3 in E-flat, which occupied the second half of the concert.

Nicknamed the “Rhenish,” this five-movement work is a cheerful, effervescent affair, with string and wind phrases rippling like waves in the famous European river for which the symphony is named.

Masur deftly handled the ins and outs of Schumann’s thick orchestration, tugging on phrases here and there for effect. The conductor crafted the lines in long, vocal arcs. Even the ländler-like theme of the Scherzo moved with a singing quality.

Slight issues in balance presented themselves in the third movement, where cellist Martha Babcock’s countermelody was lost beneath wind and string figures.

But those moments were rare, and the rest of the symphony beamed with fine playing from the orchestra. Masur drew out the chorale-like theme of the fourth movement in gleaming phrases, as he seemed to take time to revel in the music’s Gothic mystique. The spirited fifth movement brought the symphony and the evening to a rousing conclusion.

The program will be repeated 1:30 Friday and 8 p.m. Saturday and Tuesday at Symphony Hall. bso.org; 888-266-1200. 

 

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