Nelsons, BSO present a defiant look at grief with Turnage premiere

November 2, 2018 at 2:25 pm

By Aaron Keebaugh

Andris Nelsons conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra in the U.S. premiere of Mark-Anthony Turnage's "Remembering" Thursday night at Symphony Hall. Photo: Hilary Scott

Andris Nelsons conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra in the U.S. premiere of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s “Remembering: In Memoriam Evan Scofield” Thursday night. Photo: Hilary Scott

Mark-Anthony Turnage’s newest orchestral work is more than just a memorial to a lost friend. His Remembering: In Memoriam Evan Scofield, which Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony Orchestra offered in its American premiere Thursday at Symphony Hall, seems to shake a fist in the face of tragedy and death.

Its dedicatee, Evan Scofield, the son of jazz guitarist John Scofield, a close friend and frequent collaborator of the composer’s, wrote poetry and music and traveled the world. After he died of sarcoma in 2013 at the age of 25, a shattered Turnage penned a short piano movement to capture Evan’s memory in music. But when the BSO, London Symphony Orchestra, and Berlin Philharmonic commissioned the composer for a new score in 2015, Turnage expanded the idea into Remembering, a four-movement musical expression that effectively captures the varied and complicated stages of grief.

Scored for a large orchestra minus a violin section, Remembering is a symphony in all but name. Throughout its half-hour length, themes bounce, twist up in knotty harmonies, and release onto stark dissonances that burst out of the texture like a plaintive cry.

The jazz elements so central to this engaging and passionate composition reflect Turnage’s long interest with third-stream music. A one-time student of Gunther Schuller, Turnage has infused works such as Blood on the Floor with melodies and rhythms that could be equally at home in a bebop jam session.

But in Remembering the jazz is abstracted. In the first movement, sharp chords interrupt a melody that pulses in jagged statements, like an inversion of Bernstein’s “Cool” from West Side Story. In Nelsons’ hands, the full-bodied swing took on live-wire intensity. The second movement unfolds in spare harmonies that are more eerie than beautiful. Yet in Thursday’s performance, Nelsons connected the sharp, Webernian fragments with just enough thrust and momentum to reveal the underlying drama.

In the Scherzo, Turnage weaves a dense musical web from serpentine melodies, and Nelsons’ lead resulted in crisp, crackling playing to bring out the music’s dark humor.

The finale is the heart of Remembering. Sweet-toned and serene, the BSO violas and cellos engaged in supple dialogue before a silvery chord revealed a conclusion that, perhaps fittingly, fails to satisfy. In the face of such an untimely death, Turnage offers no solace. And as Nelsons mined every emotion from this tense and poignant music, it was clear that, in the end, sorrow remains.

The rest of the program, which featured Elgar’s Enigma Variations and Haydn’s Symphony No. 93 in D, lifted the evening’s mood.

Elgar’s familiar variations based on his impressions of close friends are a popular favorite among Bostonians, though guest conductors have led the BSO’s most recent performances.

Nelsons focused upon the big picture conveyed in this vivid score. The theme, under his lingering tempo, took on a vocal shape, and woodwind passages in the middle section blossomed fully. “C.A.E,” a portrait of Elgar’s wife Alice, moved gracefully. “R.B.T,” was jovial, and the romping lines of “W.M.B.” culminated in a powerful crescendo. Nelsons took “Nimrod” at a quicker-than-usual pace, but the orchestra responded with colorful and sensitive playing, the strings resonating softly in the opening. In “B.G.N.” principal cellist Blaise Déjardin floated an amber-toned line before the other strings wrapped him in a silky blanket of sound. The brassy fanfares of “E.D.U.,” Elgar’s Straussian self-portrait, took on proper Edwardian swagger.

Nelsons’ renditions of lush romantic works such as this one are often revelatory. But his technicolor versions of classical repertoire sometimes yield mixed results.

Though his journey through Haydn’s Symphony No. 93 was somewhat micro-managed, there were times when his attention to the details, such as the surging cello accompaniment in the first movement, resulted in a pleasant interpretive revelation. The opening Adagio, however, failed to sing as Nelsons tediously sculpted every passing phrase.

But as the music progressed, Nelsons turned his attention to the larger structure. The string quartet that opens the second movement flowered into gorgeous ensemble statements. His firm tempo in the third movement resulted in a sweeping but sure-footed minuet, and the laughing string and wind lines supplied humor to the elegantly shaped finale.

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Saturday and Tuesday at Symphony Hall. The Haydn and Elgar will be performed on the 8 p.m. Casual Friday concert.; 888-266-1200


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