Nelsons leads BSO in powerful Berlioz, Benjamin premiere

February 11, 2017 at 11:13 am

By Aaron Keebaugh

Anders Nelsons conducted the BSO in music of Berlioz and George Benjamin Friday night at Symphony Hall.

Anders Nelsons conducted the BSO in music of Berlioz and George Benjamin Friday night at Symphony Hall.

 The Andris Nelsons era with the Boston Symphony Orchestra has been one largely steeped in standard repertoire. Yet this season has brought refreshing attention to new music by established figures as well as up-and-coming composers. Recent months have witnessed performances of works by Thomas Adès, Terry Riley, Eric Nathan, Timo Andres, and Julian Anderson.

Friday night’s concert at Symphony Hall offered the first Boston performance of George Benjamin’s Dream of the Song. Benjamin enjoys an exalted place in the musical world these days following successful premieres and repeat performances of his operas Into the Little Hill and Written on Skin. He’s no stranger to the BSO. In the past, the orchestra has performed his Palimpsest I and Ringed by the Far Horizon, both works of ear-tingling color. Dream of the Song is the composer’s largest non-stage work since Antara of 1987.

The fifteen-minute work juxtaposes instrumental colors with glistening harmonies as well as texts drawn from different legends and histories. A co-commission from the BSO, Royal Concertgebouw, BBC Symphony Orchestra, and Festival d’Automne, Dream of the Song sets translations of Hebrew texts with fragments by Garciá Lorca within a kaleidoscope of instrumental effects.

Scored for countertenor, female chorus, and orchestra, Dream of the Song resonates with deep mystery and poetic meaning. Some texts, when put together, speak of sacrifice. “The Gazelle,” a poem by Samuel HaNagid, commands one to “Drink your grape blood against my lips” while the female chorus intones a line from Garciá Lorca that states, in translation, “Fields and skies scourged my body’s wounds.” Benjamin’s music wraps these lines in quiet reverence. High notes in the violins and woodwinds gleam as basses, with soft growls, tether the chords to the earth.

In “Gazing through the Night” the female and countertenor voices coalesced in glistening dissonances. Bejun Mehta, who performed the work Friday night, sang his lines with a smooth voice that had just the right hint of warmth. In “The Pen” his lines broke into burbling figures that gave the music a quiet intensity.

At the bows, Nelsons didn’t acknowledge separately the other heroes of the performance, Boston’s own Lorelei Ensemble. The ladies of this small choir are some of the best singers in Boston. Together, they sang Benjamin’s music with soft elegance. The singers supported Mehta in “Gazing through the Night” with sheets of luminous sound. In “Casida del llanto,” a text that tells of weeping, the voices swirled in an overwhelming web of sorrowful phrases. Dream of the Song is a work of aching beauty, and Mehta and the Lorelei Ensemble supplied its soul.

Filling out the bulk of the concert was Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique. Berlioz’s love letter to Irish actress Harriet Smithson is a show-stopper even today. The French composer’s orchestral canvas is awash with color. Flute and violin figures prick the ear, brasses blaze, and basses snarl is this portrayal of romantic excess, personal torment, and death.

Works like this reveal Nelsons’ strengths. Leading with scooping gestures, the occasional slashing motion, and from-the-tiptoe downbeats, the conductor coaxed a reading of rapt energy and excitement.

The symphony’s bracing power rested in the details. Nelsons shaped the idée fixe—the theme for Smithson—in cresting waves. The opening string theme floated in the air as if a whisper. The waltz of the second movement whirled gracefully. The symphony’s bucolic serenity came in the third movement, the scene of Berlioz’s opium-induced dream. Timpanists set up in Symphony Hall’s balconies sounded the distant thunder and the death knell for the fateful woman. The power came in the “March to the Scaffold.” As the young anti-hero walked to his death, the brasses sounded out the crowd theme in a scene of populist fervor. 

In the “Dream of a Witches Sabbath” the beloved is hideously transformed, portrayed to ghastly effect by clarinetist William R. Hudgins. Tubas punched out the “Dies Irae” with vigor, and the witches’ round dance was a frenzy. Nelsons kept the momentum going right to the end. The final chord, the ultimate goal of the figures that moved with whipcrack speed and energy, resounded in the hall.

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Saturday at Symphony Hall. bso.org; 888-266-1200.

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