This post is part of a multi-part Arts Fuse series examining the traditions and realities of classical piano concertos influenced by jazz. The articles are bookended by Boston Symphony Orchestra concerts: the first features one of the first classical pieces directly influenced by jazz, Darius Milhaud’s Creation of the World (February 19 – 21); the second has pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet performing one of the core works in this repertoire, Maurice Ravel’s Concerto in G (April 23 – 28). Steve Elman’s chronology of jazz-influenced piano concertos (JIPCs) can be found here. His essays on this topic are posted on his author page. Elman welcomes your comments and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Steve Elman
There were two concerts at Symphony Hall on Saturday April 25. One was richly French and deeply satisfying. The other was German, sort of, or German with an English overlay – and that concert left something to be desired.
They were both part of the same Boston Symphony program, and the evening demonstrated the problems with programming by US orchestras that I’ve talked about previously in this series. More on that a little later.
The reason I made this concert a priority was the programming of the most popular jazz-influenced piano concerto, Maurice Ravel’s Concerto in G, played by Jean-Yves Thibaudet. Every detail of this performance was sensational, alive with verve and beauty, springing from Thibaudet’s own deep knowledge of it. Not that this is a surprise: Thibaudet has been playing this piece for more than twenty years. He recorded it with Charles Dutoit conducting the Montreal Symphony in 1995, and his own website describes it as one of his “signature” pieces. (Note to readers outside of Boston: he has more performances of it coming up, in Atlanta on April 30, May 1, and May 2; Valencia (Spain) on June 5; and Munich from June 20 through 23.)
What makes Thibaudet an ideal interpreter of this concerto is his understanding of and appreciation for jazz. As far as I know, he is the only classical pianist to record a full CD in tribute to a jazz musician. His Conversations with Bill Evans (London / Decca, 1995) is devoted to transcriptions of Evans’s solo work, created for Thibaudet by Jed Distler. In the notes to that release, Thibaudet says, “The main challenge for me, in retrospect, was that of assimilating jazz rhythm. Rhythm in jazz is quite different from [rhythm in] classical music, and functions like a heartbeat.”
That observation applies not only to a classical musician attempting to do a jazz project, but also to a classical pianist in a jazz-influenced piano concerto. I noted this when I reviewed Kirill Gerstein’s performance of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue at Berklee in 2012: “[There are] inherently different approaches by jazz and classical musicians to the first beat of every bar. Jazz players often achieve a balance in performance by delaying the feel of the ‘one’ ever so slightly—the music already has plenty of forward propulsion, and a relaxed approach to the first beat is one way to keep the performance flexible, to let it swing. Classical players are working with notes on a page, which can be static or monotonous if played [with the rhythm] exactly as written, so they often give their interpretations edge and drive by gently anticipating the ‘one.’” The challenge in a JIPC is to do justice to both approaches to rhythm in the same piece of music.
Ravel gives Thibaudet several unaccompanied opportunities to let the music breathe à la jazz, and he did so with the greatest of ease on Saturday, making those passages seem natural within a classical context but edging ever so delicately towards a swing feel. Conductor Bernard Haitink showed impeccable sensitivity to these ebbs and flows of rhythm, and the BSO brass and wind soloists made the most of the slurs and bounce where Ravel has the orchestra nod to Gershwin. Haitink also brought out some of the martial quality in the music that other conductors miss, connecting it to its fraternal twin, Ravel’s Concerto for the Left Hand.
The sound of the BSO was magnificent in the Concerto in G and in the preceding work, Ravel’s “Ma mère l’oye” (Mother Goose) ballet. “Mother Goose” was more ethereal, as it should have been, with many members of the orchestra showing how well they understood the micro-adjustments of tempo and attack that Ravel needs, even within a scant few seconds. I particularly appreciated the harpist (Jessica Zhou, I think), who displayed remarkable sensitivity in one short solo passage.
The Ravel concerto is such a spectacular piece, and it is so popular with audiences, that it makes an ideal concert-closer. But this BSO program put it at the center of the evening. After the break, the orchestra returned, pared down, for a three-part suite by Thomas Adès built on keyboard pieces by François Couperin and Mozart’s “Linz” Symphony (No. 36 in C, K. 425) as the finale.
I expected the Adès pieces to relate more strongly to the French music of the first half, since they are expansions and elaborations on the elegant harpsichord music of the pre-Revolutionary French court. Instead, the composer has chosen a language for his Three Studies from Couperin that is anything but opulent, almost German. The pieces are lushly austere, if I can coin an oxymoron – very tonal in their language, rich but pure in the way that Bach and early English vocal music can be. It seemed to me that the BSO players were a bit unfocused here, either because of a lack of familiarity with the piece or because some 130 or more concertgoers chose to ignore protocol and stomp in rudely during the first minute, which unfolds slowly in a hushed tone.
The Mozart symphony that followed was a bit limp, although most of the audience applauded it warmly. The most effective Mozart performances I’ve heard bring out the clarity of his musical thinking, the inner strengths of his melodies, and the subtle excitement of his innovations. It seems to me that he should sound like a vital progressive, not a comfortable Old Master. In the case of this symphony, reputed to have been composed in just a few days for an unexpected concert in Linz, I felt that there ought to have been a sense of heat and risk, edging towards Beethoven. But Haitink seemed to hold back the orchestra from too Romantic an approach. After those moments with a forward thrust, he would bring down the dynamics to concentrate on a passage of softer melody.
86-year-old Haitink makes every visit to Boston count as the BSO’s conductor emeritus, and this concert was no exception. Seeing him walk to the podium vigorously and conduct with relative ease of movement gave me hope that we’ll be able to appreciate his work here for many years to come. His great intellect as an interpreter was amply on display throughout, and if the Mozart was a little less convincing than it might have been, that fault may lie with the BSO’s own traditions rather than Haitink’s vision of the work.
All in all, the second half was an anticlimax, and I wondered why the BSO chose to put the program together in this way.
To be fair, Jeremy Eichler’s review of the Thursday performance in the Globe pointed appropriately to Ravel’s admiration for Mozart as a way of finding some unity, but this intellectual construct has little relevance to the music as actually heard. The Ravel works illuminated one another perfectly, but the Mozart didn’t speak to them at all. The Adès pieces were in a world of their own, but they at least had the intimacy of Mozart and the rigor of Germanic music.
This sense of dissatisfaction with the structure of the program – which actually led to less overall appreciation of the evening’s music than more – points toward Big Questions, some of which I’ve dealt with earlier.
The BSO has a reputation as a “French” orchestra, stemming mostly from the music directorship of Charles Munch (1949 – 1962), but already well established by Pierre Monteux (Music Director 1919 – 1924), and Serge Koussevitzky (Music Director 1924 – 1949), who is often thought of as a “French” conductor because of the affinity between Russian and French music and his own success commissioning and conducting French works. More than four decades of French-oriented music directorship gave the BSO one of the most celebrated string sounds ever heard in the US, with the addition of consummate wind and brass players who know how to get that “creamy” quality so important to French music. Even Seiji Ozawa (Music Director 1973 – 2002) might be considered part of this tradition, because some of his greatest BSO recordings are of French music. The same tradition thrives today whenever Charles Dutoit conducts, and it certainly was on display in the French parts of this program.
So what was the curator of this concert thinking when he or she proposed the Mozart symphony? This concert program carried some venerable BSO history on which he or she could easily have drawn instead.
The BSO played the US premiere of the Ravel concerto nearly 83 years ago to the day of Thursday’s performance. Another feather in the BSO’s cap: Serge Koussevitzky commissioned it (In fact, Koussevitzky is responsible for commissioning both of Ravel’s most popular works in the modern classical concert hall – the orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition in 1922, and the Concerto in G). With that history in mind, putting the concerto at the end would have given the program a natural drama; it would have been a victory lap for the organization that brought this great work to the world, played by a master interpreter.
“Mother Goose” would have worked well as a curtain-raiser, as it did in this performance. But other works in place of the Adès and Mozart could have provided a more satisfying evening. An adventurous programmer might have suggested another work Koussevitzky commissioned, like Albert Roussel’s Third Symphony. Something more conservative? OK, how about Bizet’s “Jeux d’Enfants,” which would resonate well with “Mother Goose”? If a real crowd-pleaser were called for, one or both of Bizet’s “Carmen Suites” would have added some Spanish-French color.
My point, simply, is: programming is not rocket science. There are plenty of ways to bring the pieces of a program together so that an audience has a thrilling or enlightening experience. Why isn’t this done more often?
Another question: Why do orchestras avoid crediting the primary curators of individual concerts? That craft is surely as important as the choosing of pieces for an exhibition of visual art, where curators are given ample credit. Programming ultimately is the responsibility of the Music Director, but he or she only rarely chooses every work in an orchestra’s season. I can’t imagine what downside there would be to the inclusion of a sentence in the program below the list of works to be performed, something like: “This evening’s program was curated by Maestro Haitink and members of the Orchestra, with the assistance of the Boston Symphony Artistic Staff.”
Another question I have, and maybe you have, too: Where does Andris Nelsons fit on the French-German spectrum and how might his tenure change past practices in programming? To start to answer the question, I did a content analysis of programs he’s conducted in 2014-15 and the ones he’s going to conduct at Tanglewood and in the next season at Symphony Hall. I also took note of the overall shape of the 2015-16 season. If the programming in these seasons represents his current vision, it is not typical for American orchestras and he does not seem to be striving for balance, either in individual programs or in the upcoming season as a whole. This may be positive or negative, depending on your perspective.
So far, it seems that the BSO’s music director has a strong inclination towards Russian and German repertoire, which is not surprising, considering his training and experience. He has conducted or will conduct 32 works by composers in the German tradition (more if you include Dvorak), and 25 by composers in the Russian tradition. To date, he has not conducted a single work by a French composer in Boston (although, to be fair, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, and Rachmaninoff drew much of their inspiration from the French tradition, and Nelsons has conducted or will conduct works by them).
Nelsons’s 2015-16 programs are even more heavily Russian than his programs in 2014-15. Of the fifteen he is conducting next season, there are only four without a major work by a Russian composer. Part of this statistical anomaly is his decision to conduct five Shostakovich symphonies (5 through 10) over the course of his first three seasons. (He began the series with the tenth early this month and it will be repeated at Tanglewood; numbers 5, 8, and 9 are on tap for 2015-16, and presumably 6 and 7 will follow in 2016-17.) But there are also seven works by Tchaikovsky throughout the season, and Nelsons is conducting four of them; all the others are in a single program led by Pinchas Zukerman.
Where are the older masters? I was surprised to find that only Beethoven and Dvorak will have a significant presence at Symphony Hall in 2015-16. Beethoven gets three symphonies and four piano concertos, and there are seven Dvorak works over four programs. There are three Haydn pieces (two symphonies and a violin concerto), and two Mahler symphonies, which is about typical for a major American orchestra. But there are just two compositions by Mozart in the entire 2015-16 season, and neither is a piano concerto or a symphony (note: there WILL be plenty of Mozart at Tanglewood, as usual). Mendelssohn, Brahms, Schubert, and Schumann are represented with just one work apiece. When there’s more Prokofiev and Rachmaninoff than Brahms or Schubert, something unusual is happening.
What’s been put into the slots that used to be filled by the familiar? Nelsons is to be commended for conducting (and /or choosing) new music and for revisiting some rarely-performed pieces. In the next BSO season, he will conduct US or world premieres of American composer Sebastian Currier’s Divisions, Danish composer Hans Abrahamsen’s let me tell you, Greek composer George Tsontkis’s Sonnets, and Georgian composer Giya Kancheli’s Dixi, plus Hans Werner Henze’s Symphony No. 8, and Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto.
Nelsons (and, presumably, some anonymous BSO curators) also deserve a nod for giving other conductors some significant non-standard music in the next season. François-Xavier Roth takes on François-Joseph Gossec’s Symphony in F (1809), Jiří Bĕlohlávek conducts Bohuslav Martinů’s Symphony No. 6, Vladimir Jurowski gets Karl Amadeus Hartmann’s Concerto funèbre, and Stéphane Denève directs Jennifer Higdon’s Blue Cathedral. Ken-David Masur will handle the US debut of South Korean composer Unsuk Chin’s Mannequin, and Christoph von Dohnanyi will conduct the world premiere of French composer Jean-Frédéric Neuburger’s Aube. In addition, three pieces will celebrate Henri Dutilleux’s centenary, with Roth and Dutoit conducting two of them.
But there’s no doubt that French music is getting short shrift. Other than the Gossec, Aube and Dutilleux mentioned above, there are three works by Ravel, two by Debussy, two by Berlioz, and one each by Canteloube and Saint-Saëns. That’s fourteen pieces by French composers out of the 84 works programmed next season – 1.7%, if you do the math – and only three of those French pieces will be conducted by the music director.
Nelsons’s very first BSO program including any French composers will take place a year from now, in April 2016. It features two reliable favorites – Debussy’s La Mer and Ravel’s La Valse, plus Dutilleux’s Métaboles and two Russian vocal works. It appears that the BSO is reserving French-oriented programs for Charles Dutoit, not that there’s anything wrong with that, and grooming Stéphane Denève and François-Xavier Roth as pinch-hitters for him.
But my analysis of Nelsons’s first seasons as music director leads to some final questions, to which I have no answers: Does he feel less affinity with French repertoire? Has he made a conscious decision to pull the BSO towards repertoire that is not so comfortable as a way of challenging the players and giving them new horizons? Is he so thrilled with the capabilities of this orchestra that he wants to hear them explore music he knows well, like the owner of a powerful new car taking it for test drives on familiar roads? Does he have some other surprises in mind for the future?
Example: he has been quoted as saying he likes jazz. Can one hope for some jazz-oriented works? So far, it seems that my pet itch of the past few years is going to get very little scratching from the Boston Symphony. The BSO has not programmed one jazz-influenced piano concerto after July 3, when Kirill Gerstein plays George Gershwin’s Concerto in F at Tanglewood. Apparently, that performance and this week’s Ravel with Thibaudet are going to have to suffice for a long time to come.
If you missed Thibaudet’s Ravel Concerto at Symphony Hall, an excellent recent performance has been posted on YouTube, with outstanding audio and video quality. Thibaudet is accompanied by the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra led by Philippe Jordan, from a Proms concert at Royal Albert Hall in London, recorded 8/24/2013.
Thibaudet’s 1995 London / Decca recording with the Montreal Symphony and Charles Dutoit is available via Spotify.
There is no Thibaudet recording available with Haitink conducting, but for comparison (and to hear how responsive the conductor is to a performer’s sensibilities), there is a performance available on YouTube by Hélène Grimaud and the London Symphony under Haitink’s direction, less jazzy but with considerable grace (in three parts):
More: To help you explore compositions mentioned above as easily as possible, my full chronology of JIPCs contains detailed information on recordings of these works, including CDs, Spotify access, and YouTube links.
Next in the Jazz and Piano Concerto Series — The Straddlers
Steve Elman’s four decades (and counting) in New England public radio have included ten years as a jazz host in the 1970s, five years as a classical host in the 1980s, a short stint as senior producer of an arts magazine, thirteen years as assistant general manager of WBUR, and currently, on-call status as fill-in classical host on 99.5 WCRB since 2011. He was jazz and popular music editor of The Schwann Record and Tape Guides from 1973 to 1978 and wrote free-lance music and travel pieces for The Boston Globe and The Boston Phoenix from 1988 through 1991.
He is the co-author of Burning Up the Air (Commonwealth Editions, 2008), which chronicles the first fifty years of talk radio through the life of talk-show pioneer Jerry Williams. He is a former member of the board of directors of the Massachusetts Broadcasters Hall of Fame.