On a heroic night, Hardenberger and Nelsons let the trumpet sound in BSO premiere

November 14, 2014 at 12:30 pm

By David Wright

Håkan Hardenberger performs the U.S. premiere of Brett Dean’s “Dramatis personae” with Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony Orchestra Thursday night. Photo: Dominick Reuter

A brilliant premiere was the centerpiece of a Boston Symphony Orchestra program on Thursday night that brought together three works in a celebration of heroism.

Håkan Hardenberger was the trumpet soloist in the first U.S. performance of Brett Dean’s appealing quasi-concerto Dramatis personae, Music for Trumpet and Orchestra, a sort of contemporary Heldenleben for a comic-book (and ultimately just comic) superhero.

Boston’s newest music hero, the BSO’s recently installed music director Andris Nelsons, opened the program with Tchaikovsky’s dark portrait of Shakespeare’s famously reluctant hero in the Overture-Fantasy Hamlet.

Closing with a knockout performance of The Rite of Spring, Nelsons and his superb players reminded listeners why Igor Stravinsky was, and remains, the dauntless superhero of modern music.

Composer Dean, born in Brisbane, Australia in 1961, learned orchestration from the inside out as a violist for 15 years with the Berlin Philharmonic.  And that experience showed in the lush symphonic scoring of what was otherwise a rather whimsical modern piece.

Modern in idiom, that is—the work’s three-movement scheme, fast-slow-fast, was as old as Vivaldi.  Also like Vivaldi, Dean delighted in filling his conventional form with colorful and unpredictable music.

Success has many fathers, and some of the credit for Dramatis personae can be claimed by trumpeter Hardenberger, for whom it was composed, and by a commissioning consortium consisting of the Grafenegg Festival, Danish Broadcasting Corporation, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, and Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra.

On Thursday Hardenberger cut a dashing figure at the work’s outset, dancing on a high wire over a skulking and sometimes surly orchestra.  (To call this music indebted to Stravinsky’s Rite for its incisiveness and rhythmic vigor would be simply to describe the air composers have breathed since that piece’s notorious 1913 premiere.)

By the end, however, the first movement lived up to its title, “Fall of a Superhero,” with tragicomically drooping chromatic scales in a long diminuendo.  This Hamlet-like moment, in which “the native hue of resolution” was “sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,” was of course followed by a slow movement titled “Soliloquy,” featuring the soloist in a lonely meditation over minimal accompaniment. (Vivaldi did that a lot too.)

According to the composer, the closing movement, “The Accidental Revolutionary,” was inspired by a visual gag in Charlie Chaplin’s film Modern Times, in which Charlie turns a street corner and finds himself leading a crowd of striking workers.  On Thursday Hardenberger’s trumpet was up to the job, quick-fingered and rhythmic.

Similarly to Tchaikovsky’s Hamlet, closing with Prince Fortinbras marching in to restore order, Dean’s Dramatic personae turned at the end to a jaunty, Purcellian march (reflected in a dissonant, Ives-like fun-house mirror) as the trumpet hero left the front of the stage to become a Chaplinesque “face in the crowd” with his brassy brethren in the back of the orchestra.

Hardenberger’s playing drew on a tonal palette that ranged from blaring to caressing.  His artful use of various mutes extended his expression still further, from nasal sarcasm to soft, creamy lyricism.

Conductor Nelsons, having led the work’s U.K. and German premieres with Hardenberger this past May and July, clearly knew the territory, and the orchestra played with wit and panache.

Dean’s colorful score, and especially its charmingly unconventional conclusion, brought an enthusiastic response from the audience, which seemed to include more members of the millennial generation than one usually sees on Thursday nights at the BSO.  Composer Dean joined the conductor and soloist onstage to bask in the applause.

Thursday’s concert got off to a slow start with a tentative performance of Tchaikovsky’s least popular symphonic poem, Hamlet. The composer wrote it late in his career, while working on his Fifth Symphony; the piece drew on his familiar vocabulary of extended sequences, expressive syncopation, and urgent foreshortening, and even shared a phrase or two with more familiar works.

But something of Shakespeare’s vacillating hero seems to have entered this music, and few of its gestures paid off in the grand Tchaikovsky manner of, say, Romeo and Juliet.  Perhaps, like Rachmaninoff in his later years, the older Tchaikovsky  was inching toward his own Rite of Spring, aiming for something more stark and modern.

Programming the piece for only the third time since 1916, the BSO made a poor case for it Thursday night, the woodwinds in particular sounding out of sync and sometimes painfully out of tune.  Even the fine, fluid solo by assistant principal oboist Keisuke Wakao was partly covered by his too-loud colleagues.

Night and day—make that winter and spring—describes the difference between the wind playing in the Tchaikovsky and that in Stravinsky’s opening pages.  Led by the high, soft bassoon of Richard Svoboda, the woodwinds crawled out of the thawing earth, stepping on each other in that randomly buggy way, yet in perfect tune and balance. Clearly these players had been here before.

If symphonic conductors envy rock musicians for their hair-waving, Dionysian abandon, there’s always The Rite of Spring to even the score.  After 101 years, Stravinsky’s pounding rhythms and violent collisions sounded as impossibly daring as ever.

The effect was only increased by the knowledge of how much skill and discipline it takes to sound this crazy.  On Thursday night, all tentativeness was forgotten as Nelsons and his band hurled themselves into this familiar but always-new masterpiece.

As usual with this work, the blinding originality of Part I made Part II sound just a bit conventional, and one began to wish for dancers to get the performance over the less eventful pages.  (That said, the Rite stands alone among complete ballet scores for how self-sufficient it is in concert.)

However, the conductor’s and orchestra’s attention to detail never flagged, and the players must have been listening intently to each other to produce such focused and transparent yet well-knit orchestral textures on every page, whether dreamy or cacophonous.

Interpretations of The Rite of Spring are many and varied, but Thursday’s straight-ahead, high-octane reading could be recommended to anyone encountering the piece for the first time or the hundredth–and also to your neighborhood rock star.

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

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