Feb 162016

The Boston Symphony Orchestra’s Shakespeare festival, as a whole, has proven to be the most satisfying extended endeavor yet of Andris Nelsons’ directorship.

Composer George Tsontakis, BSO principal English horn player Robert Sheena, Andris Nelsons, and the BSO take a bow. Photo: Lisa Voll.

Composer George Tsontakis, BSO principal English horn player Robert Sheena, Andris Nelsons, and the BSO take a bow. Photo: Lisa Voll.

By Jonathan Blumhofer

Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO) wrapped up their three-week-long commemoration of the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare on Saturday night with a program at Symphony Hall packing narrative and musical heat (a nice contrast to the frigid conditions outside), a fresh take on some old poems, and a reading of an evergreen staple that sounded anything but mundane or familiar.

Richard Strauss once described himself (tongue-in-cheek) as “a first-class second-rate composer,” though Macbeth, his early tone poem after Shakespeare’s play, is, in all seriousness, hardly top-drawer and barely second-rate, if that. Yes, its orchestration has moments of brilliance and the hints of later Strauss that come through – foreshadowings of Eine Alpensinfonie, Ein Heldenleben, and Tod und Verklärung, especially – are telling.

But the whole piece is clunky and episodic, essentially a compositional exercise when compared to the extraordinary Don Juan, which followed it just a year later. The melodic writing in Macbeth isn’t particularly compelling and Strauss’s developmental procedures often come across as formulaic. In terms of moving forward a musical narrative, the score lacks focus and tends to meander. At the time, Strauss was clearly struggling to balance form with content (he was, after all, only 23 when he completed Macbeth); that he resolved these issues so quickly in his subsequent tone poems is astounding, but the difficulties are writ large in the present score.

The piece is made up of two principle motives, one for Macbeth and the other for his wife. The former is represented in a two-part theme: the first, a striding, march-like gesture that ascends like climbing a steep flight of stairs, only to collapse in a vertiginous leap at the ends of phrases. The second half is more mysterious and compacted, highly chromatic, and syncopated, often appearing prominently in the depths of the orchestra. Lady Macbeth gets a beguiling tune, like Macbeth’s filled with syncopations, though, in shape, more wave-like and touched by descending figures. Much of Macbeth’s action involves these two themes combined to various degrees of intensity; Duncan’s arrival at Macbeth’s castle and Macduff’s victory come and go; and a final metamorphosis of Macbeth’s music intimates his defeat and death.

Whatever compositional shortcomings the piece has, it was at least a real treat to hear a top-notch orchestra like the BSO have a go at it. The orchestra’s performance was suitably energetic and colorful. Nelsons drew out the music’s strange, jarring dissonances – in Macbeth Strauss hadn’t yet figured out how to perfectly balance his progressive harmonic leanings with common-practice tonality – and, if those moments didn’t quite afford terror equivalent to that found in the play (or Verdi’s opera after it), they at least caused you to sit up in your seat and take notice.

Still, that this week’s performances marked the first time the BSO has programmed Macbeth in town since 1911 isn’t surprising; that Dvorak’s Othello Overture, on the other hand, hasn’t been heard in Symphony Hall since 1967 is. Part of a set of three overtures written in 1891-2 (In Nature’s Realm and Carnival were the others), Othello focuses mainly on the final scene of Shakespeare’s play in which Othello, riven by jealousy, murders Desdemona and takes his own life. In contrast to Macbeth, Othello’s musical focus is tight; Dvorak’s command of the orchestra and sense of drama impeccable throughout; the melodic writing is fresh and convincing; and the combination of rhythm and harmony not once complacent.

In all, it’s a wonderfully lively piece, filled with all sorts of subtle touches (like a pianissimo cymbal crash accompanying forceful wind entries) and the BSO played it on Saturday with driving focus. A number of solos stood out – Tom Rolfs’ clarion trumpet, Clint Foreman’s melting flute solos (especially near the end), and Richard Gelasio’s dulcet English horn, among them – but the whole performance was really an ensemble triumph, a showcase of what the BSO does so well when they’re pushed and challenged in the right ways.

One of the best aspects of this short Shakespeare festival has been the opportunity to hear new and recent Shakespeare-inspired pieces by Hans Werner Henze and Hans Abrahamsen. This weekend’s programs offered one last new work, and a world premiere at that: George Tsontakis’ Sonnets. (Arts Fuse feature) Conceived as a set of “tone poems for English horn and orchestra,” Sonnets takes four of those poems by Shakespeare and crafts a series of meditations on/responses to them. Written for and played on these concerts by the BSO’s accomplished English hornist, Robert Sheena, the whole work proved a thoughtful and apt contribution to this month’s series, though, after one hearing, it also struck me as enigmatic and, in a way, inconclusive.

That said, it certainly offers moments of great beauty. The first of its four movements, based on the sonnet “When to the sessions of sweet, silent thought,” opens with fragmentary themes. Eventually the solo English horn joins in and presents the first in a series of lush, flowing melodies, often accompanied by some sort of pulsing figure in the orchestra. The overriding aura is one of nostalgia.

In the second movement (a response to “When I do count the clock that tells the time”) there are more syncopated mottos supporting the solo instrument and a kind of Oriental flavor to the melodic writing, filled as it is with minor- and augmented seconds.

For the third movement (“Like as the waves make toward the pebbled shore”), Tsontakis crafted a colorful scherzo marked by short gestures tossed between the orchestra and soloist. The mysterious glissandos in the orchestral strings at the beginning are but one of many striking effects in the movement.

The finale continues the technique of melodic and motivic exchanges between English horn and ensemble, here most prominently utilizing an undulating trill-like figure that the soloist hands off to different sections of the orchestra. Based on “So you are to my thoughts as food to life,” this is the most song-like movement of Sonnets, the English horn’s solo line at times neatly reflecting the rhythm and contour of the original poem. A turbulent middle section evokes fits of envy, though the movement ends in a state of relative peace.

Andris Nelsons leads the BSO in Strauss' "Macbeth." Photo: Lisa Voll.

Andris Nelsons leads the BSO in Strauss’ “Macbeth.” Photo: Lisa Voll.

Compositionally, with Sonnets Tsontakis has forged a warm, inviting score, one that demands the listeners’ attention but provides ample rewards. If the unease of the last two movements suggest that this piece might have more to say (in the form of a fifth movement), at least none of the four that Tsontakis has given us overstay their welcome: each is concise, focused, and – in the best sense – easy to take in.

Sheena delivered a fervent, eloquent account of the solo part, one that showcases his instrument both in its comfort zone and outside of it. Nelsons again led the BSO in a stirring, colorful reading of a significant contemporary score. Perhaps this performance can be released as one of the BSO’s future “Classical Live” installments; I certainly hope that’ll be the case.

Saturday’s concert closed with the familiar strains of Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture. The BSO’s playing in it was fully alive, menacing at the beginning, frenzied during the battle music, soaring with voluptuous lyricism at the climax of the famous tune and crushing pathos over the closing pages. Nelsons’ command of transitions was smart and fluid, while the orchestra responded to his leading with uncommon vitality.

This Romeo and Juliet proved both revealing in the context of the evening – it shared not a few traits with each piece that preceded it – and a well-placed capstone to the BSO’s Shakespeare series as a whole, a festival that has proven to be the most satisfying extended endeavor yet of Nelsons’ directorship. Let’s hope he and the Orchestra have many more of these type things up their collective sleeves. The more ambitious they are, too, the better.

Jonathan Blumhofer is a composer and violist who has been active in the greater Boston area since 2004. His music has received numerous awards and been performed by various ensembles, including the American Composers Orchestra, Kiev Philharmonic, Camerata Chicago, Xanthos Ensemble, and Juventas New Music Group. Since receiving his doctorate from Boston University in 2010, Jon has taught at Clark University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and online for the University of Phoenix, in addition to writing music criticism for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.


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