Carpenter and BSO provide simpatico advocacy for Riley premiere

January 13, 2017 at 12:34 pm

By Aaron Keebaugh

Organist Cameron Carpenter, Bramwell Tovey and the Boston Symphony Orchestra gave the local premiere of Terry Riley's "At the Royal Majestic" Thursday night at Symphony Hall. Photo: Winslow Townson

Organist Cameron Carpenter, Bramwell Tovey and the Boston Symphony Orchestra gave the local premiere of Terry Riley’s “At the Royal Majestic” Thursday night at Symphony Hall. Photo: Winslow Townson

Terry Riley has always blazed new musical paths. The composer helped pioneer the minimalist style, and his work with electronics has influenced jazz and rock musicians alike. 

Yet he has not shied away from traditional forms. In recent years he has written a number of works for large orchestra that combine aspects of his far-reaching style. One of those is At the Royal Majestic, a three-movement concerto for organ and orchestra. Written for the organ virtuoso Cameron Carpenter and premiered by him and the Los Angeles Philharmonic in April 2014, the work conjures the sound worlds of both African-American theatre and religious ceremonies in Tibet. It is at once worldly and otherworldly.

Carpenter and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, led by Bramwell Tovey, gave the work its Boston premiere Thursday night at Symphony Hall in a performance marked by resonant mystery. Amazingly, this was the first time the BSO has performed any of Riley’s music.

Carpenter remains one of the most exciting and provocative figures in the classical music world today. His performances, shot through with mesmerizing technical finesse, challenge traditional notions of interpretation with, at times, mixed results. His playing, though, is never boring.

That said, At the Royal Majestic is not a work that sparks with technical flamboyance. Instead the organ part, reflecting styles as diverse as Baroque chorales and circus calliopes, comments on and complements music emanating from the orchestra. The piece fuses popular music—or music that was once popular—into a bright modern orchestral tapestry that recalls another groundbreaking work for organ and orchestra, Copland’s First Symphony. Like that piece, At the Royal Majestic, for much of its thirty-minute length, is a riff on jazz and blues elements.

Moreover, Riley’s score is wonderfully colorful, calling for an array of instruments, including three piccolos, five bassoons, alto saxophone, flugelhorn, and drum set. The blues elements are most apparent in the first movement, a depiction of an African-American theatre. Here, Riley’s music bears hints of the singsong style of old cinema organ music. Scampering figures dart about the organ part and orchestra with drums and xylophone laying down a steady groove. There is some use of repetition, a familiar element of Riley’s style, though those phrases dissolve into a collage of calls, whistles, and running figures.

That is especially the case with the second movement, “ Lizard Tower Gang,” where melodies coalesce into blocks of harmony. Drums, here too, provide a prominent beat.

The most arresting music comes in the final movement, “Circling Kailash.” Like a film score, the music conjures images of a Tibetan Hindu religious ritual. Prayerful phrases swirl over powerful blocks of dissonance, and a solemn hymn appears mid-movement to set a reverent tone. These sounds are interrupted by a powerful chord on the organ that stands like a mountain at the center of thick clouds. With high flute tones on the organ, the piece gradually fades like light in a distance.

Carpenter and Tovey made for simpatico partners in a performance marked by nuance and elegance to make a strong case for Riley’s spectacular score. One hopes that the BSO will program more of Riley’s music in the future. 

Carpenter saved his most energetic playing for the encores. The first, the organist’s arrangement of the Gigue from Bach’s Fifth French Suite, was a show of technical brilliance. The second, Carpenter’s setting of “Fly Me to the Moon,” was a colorful display of instrumentation, complete with drum rolls and a march. Carpenter, it seemed, had an orchestra at his fingertips.

The opener, Samuel Barber’s Toccata Festiva, was equally fantastic. Composed in 1960, this work bursts with bright fanfare figures for both organ and orchestra.

Carpenter’s reading provided ample fireworks. In the cadenza, his feet performed a nimble tap dance on the organ’s pedals, and he traded fanfare figures with brass and percussion with clarity and precision. 

Yet Carpenter also proved a sensitive musician as he crafted the piece’s soft section with gentle touch. On the podium, Tovey led an accompaniment marked for its power and grace, building the phrases into beaming towers of sound.

After intermission, Tovey led a vivid performance of Elgar’s Enigma Variations.

Tovey commands resplendent playing from the BSO, having conducted breathtaking performances of Brahms’s German Requiem and Act 1 of Puccini’s Tosca in recent seasons at Symphony Hall and Tanglewood.

His reading of Enigma kept an eye to the big picture of Elgar’s lustrous score. Tempos were smooth and effective, and the conductor shaped the phrases of the theme with gentle rubato. 

He did take time to stop and smell the roses. “C.A.E,” a musical portrait of Elgar’s wife, Alice, flowed in gentle waves. The phrases of “R.B.T.” moved with spirited humor while in “Troyte” Tovey coaxed playing of bracing energy. The solo spotlight fell upon cellist Martha Babcock, who floated a soulful phrase at the opening of “B.G.N.”

Laughing woodwinds are prominent feature of the “Dorabella” variation, and here Tovey placed them as if jewels in a crown. “Nimrod” was particularly beautiful, with the opening phrases swelling into statements of hymn-like warmth. The final variation, a portrait of Elgar himself, sounded with the pomp and power of a brass band. It provided a sublime ending to an evening of riveting music.

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

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