Despite snow and conductor cancellation, BSO excels in Birtwistle premiere and staples

February 13, 2015 at 2:01 pm

By David Wright

Stefan Asbury led the BSO in the American premiere of Harrison Birtwistle’s “Responses” with pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard Thursday night at Symphony Hall. Photo: Stu Rosner

Weathering some very real storms of nature and global politics, the Boston Symphony Orchestra took its audience to faraway realms of fantasy and mysticism Thursday night.

Neither a second week of heavy snow and transit closures nor the absence of scheduled conductor Vladimir Jurowski due to what a program insert called “a visa-related issue” prevented the orchestra from giving vivid accounts of familiar works by Debussy and Stravinsky, a less-familiar one by Liadov, and the U.S. premiere of a piece by Sir Harrison Birtwistle co-commissioned by the BSO.

The mists of impressionism and fairy tale parted long enough to reveal a spiky and forthright new work for piano and orchestra, Birtwistle’s Responses: Sweet Disorder and the Carefully Careless.  Jurowski had led the piece’s U.K. premiere, and, confronted with a complex score lasting nearly half an hour, had substituted more familiar fare for the rest of his announced BSO program “to ensure that maximum rehearsal time be allotted” to the Birtwistle, the program said.

Happily, when Jurowski had to cancel, an appropriate substitute was available: Stefan Asbury, who had conducted the world premiere of Responses in Munich in October 2014.  Although he has been a noted exponent of new music and a sought-after teacher of conducting at the Tanglewood Music Center for nearly 20 years, Asbury was making his BSO subscription series debut Thursday night.

The “maximum rehearsal time” during this snow-shortened week may not have been much, but the orchestra players seemed to have made the most of it, as Asbury led them confidently through rapid-fire dialogue with piano soloist Pierre-Laurent Aimard and pages of swinging but knotty tutti.

For his part, Aimard was a cat on a hot tin roof, jumpy yet assertive with jagged dissonances.  The score often called on him to be the instigator when the orchestra showed signs of relaxing.  In the call-and-response pattern implied in the piece’s title, the piano usually made the call, and a section of the orchestra—strings, winds, brass or percussion—responded with phrases characteristic of it.

Unlike many present-day composers for piano, Birtwistle here showed little interest in the far reaches of the piano’s pitch range, playing that instrument down the Beethovenian middle while allotting the extreme highs and lows to the shrieking piccolos and the groaning, rumbling double basses and tuba.

A piano part like this one, full of short, jerky phrases and rarely stretching out a line, could easily become a tiresome bangfest, but Aimard never let it do so, as he constantly searched out the meaningful emphasis, the needed touch of color in a world of hard-edged, jazz-style piano tone.

For the first part of the piece, soloist and orchestra circled and took each other’s measure like a pair of boxers—or maybe like a couple on a first date, since later they got together for a charmingly jazzy interlude, with a hint of stride piano and Gershwinesque dialogue with woodwinds and a wah-wah trumpet, and eventually even some expansive tone-blending à la Debussy. (And certainly few composers practiced the art of “sweet disorder and the carefully careless” like those two.)

But the music also ventured at one point into a bare, surrealist landscape dotted with odd fragments of themes, and it closed with a feeling of alienation, as a solitary trumpet sounded its call over and over, and the piano softly asked one last question, with no response.

It was hardly a big finish, but the audience mustered some warm applause for the new work, which intensified when the 80-year-old composer joined the players onstage.

The rest of the program was enthusiastically conducted by the BSO’s assistant conductor Ken-David Masur, making his second unscheduled podium appearance in this still-new year, having substituted last month for another absent Russian conductor, Tugan Sokhiev.

Instead of opening as originally planned with no fewer than four tone poems by Anatoly Liadov, the revised program contented itself with Liadov’s From the Apocalypse to begin the second half and opened with a piece the BSO could likely play from memory, Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune.

Waiting a full minute on the podium for complete silence in the hall before beginning the piece, Masur seemed determined to restore the feelings of mystery and strangeness that this 1894 work evoked before it became the poster child for Impressionism, taught in music-appreciation classes around the globe.

And although Masur’s batonless conducting was perhaps more careful than careless, he largely succeeded.  Elizabeth Rowe’s flute, barely audible in the famous opening solo, remained (by design) wavering and indistinct throughout, and the other bits of melody gathered tentatively, like tiny sprouts breaking the surface.

Only the horns seemed not to get the message, consistently playing a little too loud in this context.  On the whole, Masur struck the balance of erotic tension and languor that this music suggests.

From the Apocalypse is just what the title says, an illustration of a verse from the Book of Revelations, in which a fiery angel descends from heaven and “the seven thunders” sound, while (one infers) mortals on earth cower and repent their sins.

Appropriately billed as a “symphonic tableau,” Liadov’s 1912 piece was curiously static, with neither narrative nor musical logic to drive it forward. The heavenly messenger in the brass, the thunder in the timpani and the hymn-chanting people in the strings seemed (as in the Birtwistle piece) to circle each other rather than engage or develop.  It was as if one’s eye were roaming a large canvas and finding colorful detail in an unchanging scene.

Considering that this piece selected by another conductor was probably not in maestro Masur’s top drawer before this week, the conductor gave it quite a ride, summoning gleaming fire from the brass, swirling winds from the strings, mournful chanting and dramatic crescendos.

In fact, following Liadov’s thunderbolts and heavenly fire, the fairy-tale narrative of Stravinsky’s Firebird, composed two years earlier, seemed a bit tame by comparison.  (The revised program substituted the composer’s 1919 suite for the complete ballet score.)

Again, as if determined to restore this piece dimmed by a thousand figure-skating routines, Masur began in near-silence, letting the scene emerge slowly from the darkness.  A Ravel-like tenderness and fantasy suffused the quiet passages, as the principal wind players left their mark, particularly hornist James Sommerville and Richard Svoboda, back in Russian bassoon heaven.

The “infernal dance” of the ogre Kashchei sounded more brilliant than ferocious, but the superb timing, propulsion, and virtuosity of the players were rewards enough in themselves.  And the triumphant close, if a bit conventional compared to the other works on this program, glowed satisfyingly.

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday.  bso.org617-266-1200.


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