Commentary/CD Reviews: Recent Symphonic Recordings From Boston Orchestras

A series of new and recent recordings by Boston orchestras demonstrate that, in the right hands, symphonic music since 1945 remains alive and well, still powerful, fresh, and vibrant.

By Jonathan Blumhofer

Curious, isn’t it, that the last really great symphony…was Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements, date 1945, exactly coincident with the end of World War Two? It is as though that apocalyptic bomb had demolished not only Hiroshima but, as a side effect, the whole tonal symphonic concept as well.

And so for the last thirty years we have had no real symphonic history.

So Leonard Bernstein told the American Symphony Orchestra League back in the summer of 1980. Bernstein was, of course, many things, though his powers as historian were often clouded by a deeply seeded subjectivity and sometimes willful neglect: the years between 1945 and 1980 alone saw one symphony from Aaron Copland; two from Bernstein himself, Prokofiev, and Krzysztof Penderecki; three by Henryk Górecki; four by Ralph Vaughan Williams and Karl Amadeus Hartmann; five by William Schuman; six from Shostakovich and Hans Werner Henze; and seven by Roger Sessions, plus reinventions of the genre by composers as diverse as Elliott Carter (Symphony of Three Orchestras) and Luciano Berio (Sinfonia). And that’s by no means a comprehensive list. By just about any standard, the years since 1945 (and after 1980, for that matter) have seen a pretty rich symphonic history, indeed, one that’s even more impressive when one includes substantial orchestral music that doesn’t fall under the generic label of “symphony.”

Thirty-five years on, though, Bernstein’s bias remains fairly widely held. But there are signs it might be starting to slip. Q2’s recent Symphomania made at least a few waves when it aired earlier this spring. And a series of new and recent recordings by Boston orchestras demonstrate that, in the right hands, symphonic music since 1945 remains alive and well, still powerful, fresh, and vibrant.



One can hardly talk about the late-20th-/early-21st-century symphony without coming, sooner or later, to John Harbison. Now in his late seventies, Harbison’s written six of them, three on commissions from the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO). Towards the end of his abbreviated tenure as BSO music director, James Levine programmed a survey of the complete Harbison symphonies, during which the two most recent ones were premiered. All the performances were recorded for and released (in 2013) by BSO Classics, the orchestra’s in-house label. The finished product offers, unique for a major living symphonic composer, a remarkable survey of the genre as it’s developed in his mind over nearly thirty years.

So, what can we make of the complete set? Well, to begin, all six symphonies are the work of a craftsman. Harbison’s technique has always been one of his greatest strengths and it’s well displayed in each of these works. His scoring is distinctive and, even when musical content is thin, nearly always inventive. Though the last two symphonies feature a vocal element, there’s not really the sense of a composer redefining the genre, at least not along the lines of, say, Mahler. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing: Harbison has plenty to say about and within the confines of the genre as handed down to him.

That’s most obvious in the First Symphony, commissioned for the BSO’s centennial in 1982, which is perhaps the finest installment of the six. This is an unsettled, urgent piece that refers back to the tradition of the late Romantics (especially in the brooding, odd-numbered movements), but also stands confidently on its own merits. Its brilliant, rhythmically incisive finale is surely one of the great, cathartic musical releases on record. On the whole, the Symphony benefits from striking melodic material and, though Harbison’s orchestration of his later symphonies can at times be more colorful, the First’s scoring grabs you by the ears from the first bar and doesn’t let you go.

His Symphony no. 2 largely holds up in quality to its immediate predecessor. This one, written for the San Francisco Symphony in 1985, traces an arc from dawn to night. It’s often regarded as one of Harbison’s darkest pieces, though it certainly isn’t without moments of light. But its overriding affect – at least the one left by its big, lamenting finale – is Cimmerian, reinforced by Harbison’s tendency to prominently showcase double reeds and other plangent-sounding instruments throughout the piece.

The Third through Fifth Symphonies each seem to be trying to work their way out of the gloom cast by the Second. Numbers Three and Four have lots of fitful moments: the music seems to be trying to burst out of its confines, but it doesn’t always succeed. To these ears, the Third is the more successful of the two. It’s more compact and focused and, on the whole, features thematic material of richer substance. Also, its finale recalls the brash energy of the last movement of the First Symphony, though its closing bars wrap things up rather abruptly, as though the music needed to be cut off before it said something it shouldn’t.

In terms of content, the Fourth and Fifth Symphonies – the latter of which sets poems on the Orpheus myth by Czesław Miłosz, Louise Glück, and Rainer Maria Rilke – are the spottiest of the cycle. Reviewing the BSO’s performance of the Fourth (from which the present recording is drawn) in 2011, I wrote that it “alternates between repetitive, rhythmic figures; glowering, dissonant harmonies; and unremarkable melodic content…[at the end of the day] there isn’t much music that sticks in the memory.” Revisiting the piece now and hearing the Fifth for the first time, I stand by my earlier verdict and extend it to cover both works. There’s some wonderfully colorful instrumentation in both pieces – Harbison uses the electric guitar to brilliant effect as an update on Orpheus’s lyre in the latter – but nothing to cover up the sense of the music spinning its wheels and rehashing things said more potently both by other composers and by Harbison, himself, in his earlier symphonies.

The Sixth Symphony, though, points in a new direction. It opens with a setting of James Wright’s “Entering the Temple in Nîmes” and concludes with three purely instrumental movements. In it, Harbison returns to the characteristics that made his first three symphonies so successful, namely: his musical arguments are compelling, the writing is emotionally direct, and the Symphony is packed with ambiguity – just listen to the closing bars of the finale for as fine an example of a musical question mark as has recently been written. At times, the piece broods, but lively, martial episodes dot the musical landscape. Moments of it, too, recall Copland and Shostakovich as though through a prism, especially the middle movements, and the end of the finale suggests that Harbison may yet have more to say in this genre. I, for one, came away from the piece hoping he does.

Taken together, the performances, which were taped at Symphony Hall between 2010 and 2012, showcase the BSO at their collective best. The orchestra’s playing is rhythmically incisive, filled with color, and tonally warm. Levine was slated to direct the whole cycle, but his departure from the orchestra’s helm in 2011 meant that the last three symphonies were conducted by, respectively, Ludovic Morlot, Jiří Bělohlávek, and David Zinman. Perhaps Levine’s guiding hand would have helped make better sense of the Fourth and Fifth Symphonies (led here by, respectively, Morlot and Bělohlávek). Then again, maybe not: Zinman’s Sixth is as compelling as any of Levine’s contributions.



If Harbison’s symphonies have hewed fairly close to symphonic convention, Andrew Norman offers a completely opposing approach. True, Play, Norman’s 2013 magnum opus, isn’t a symphony in name. But, in terms of its vision and musical argument, it’s just that: a fresh, boldly invigorating adaptation of the well-worn genre, now decked out in bold yellows, blues, and reds: a 21st-century symphony for a 21st-century audience.

That said, many of its building blocks are strikingly archaic. Norman’s use of scalar material as the basis for many of his flights of fancy is downright Beethovenian. And the delirious, heterophonic textures that pop out in the big second movement and throughout much of the third hark back to the Renaissance and late medieval music. Yet these building blocks leap and transform in unexpected ways.

The concept behind Play is simple: it’s a grand study of just that term, particularly the interactions of the members of an orchestra “with, against, or apart from” each other, in the composer’s words. Cast in three movements, the middle one of which is the longest, it offers numerous opportunities for the orchestra to play with and off of itself. Not exactly aleatoric (at least not in the strictly Lutoslawskian sense), there is enough freedom written into the score that any two performances of Play will likely turn out very differently from one another. It must be a fun piece to watch in performance – Norman’s note argues as much – but even without the visual element Play’s sonic canvas is breathtaking.

Its first movement is essentially introductory, opening with a huge bustle that presents the basic materials to be developed over the course of the piece. If you’re familiar with Norman’s kaleidoscopic language, you’ll know some of what to expect: strings slide, brasses galumph, winds swirl about. Strange and familiar percussive sounds intermingle. Fragments of tunes appear and are suddenly swallowed up. Rhythmic mottos build until, in the blink of an eye, they morph into something new. Throughout, even in the quiet moments, the energy level is spastic.

That sense of adventure continues in the big second movement. Here, gestures heard in the opening movement reappear, take new shape, and continue to transform, ultimately, into a beautiful, slowly descending series of scales and chords. In the finale, a huge, multilayered orchestral song unfolds out of this descending gesture, first in short steps and fragments, later with inexorable purpose and energy. At the end, the music unwinds itself, and Play’s closing pages carry with them a Sibelius-like sense of natural power and inevitability.

Some critics have gone so far to declare Play the greatest orchestral work of our still-young century. I’d agree that it’s probably somewhere near the head of the top five. As any serious work of art does, Play provides its measure of challenges. But its rewards are significant and its impact difficult to shake off. It’s not saying too much to declare the mind behind the piece one of the most brilliant and fertile on the scene today.

Play’s debut recording, courtesy of Gil Rose and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project (BMOP) and their label, BMOP/Sound, is stunning. Norman, formerly BMOP’s composer-in-residence, wrote the piece for the group and it sounds tailor-made. Rose and the ensemble have produced a series of terrific albums over the last few years. As far as I’m concerned, this one is their finest yet. Filling out the disc is an acrobatic performance of Norman’s wacky Try, a phantasmagoric essay for large chamber ensemble, an endearing marriage of goofiness and heart.



BMOP and Rose are the stars of another major album, the highlight of which is Irving Fine’s only (and unjustly neglected) Symphony. Commissioned by the BSO and premiered at Symphony Hall in 1962, it’s a mighty piece and, in many ways, a tragic entry to the tradition of the Great American Symphony as begun by Paine and Chadwick, and continued through Ives, Copland, Harris, Diamond, Schuman, Harbison, and others.

Fine was a significant presence in and around Boston and Tanglewood from the 1940s until his untimely death in the summer of 1962. He founded the music department at Brandeis and brought a number of leading composers to its faculty, including Leonard Bernstein, Harold Shapero, and Arthur Berger. His music covered a remarkable stylistic breadth, which is neatly documented on BMOP’s new disc, which surveys Fine’s complete orchestral works.

His early output reflects the influence of Stravinsky’s neo-Classical style: the Toccata Concertante features lots of fragmented ostinato patterns, though, unlike some of the rambling neo-Classic essays of his colleague, Shapero, it also displays a dark, focused undercurrent; its bite is acidic and its aftertaste is tart. The Notturno for Strings and Harp and Serious Song demonstrate more of the latter qualities, while Fine’s witty Diversions suggest that he was among the more multifaceted composers of his generation.

But it’s his Symphony that ensures his compositional legacy. Cast in three movements, it never completely loses its hard edge. Fine was influenced by Serialism and utilized elements of tone rows throughout the Symphony, but there’s a very personal quality to the music nonetheless. Even when it’s at its most craggy, as in the Herculean “Ode” with which it ends, the score is marked by strains of lyricism; its darker shadows were already anticipated in works like the Toccata and Notturno.

In the Symphony’s first movement, “Intrada,” angular gestures and fervent outbursts alternate with a kind of manic energy: there’s almost always a strong sense of forward momentum, of needing to get someplace in a hurry. That destination isn’t, it turns out, to be found in the second movement, “Capriccio.” Motoric, unsettled, and not a little humorous itself, there’s a madcap quality to Fine’s writing in it. Rich with color, it spends itself quickly.

The goal of Fine’s Symphony is, of course, its finale. And here it’s remarkable just how much power the composer packed into a little under nine minutes of music. Of course he’s assisted by the dramatic trajectory connecting the choppy first movement to the edgy second. Now, though, the jaggy outlines of the opening merge with the agitated character of the middle movement, and, together, they culminate in a somber final hymn. Echoes of Stravinsky, Britten, and Prokofiev are present, but none are derivative: all serve a shattering, implacable expressive goal.

There are a couple of recordings of Fine’s Symphony already on the market (including a hard-to-come-by account of the composer leading the piece with the BSO), but none pack the sonic wallop of BMOP’s reading. All of the album’s performances are as committed and precise as the best of what BMOP’s done lately, and that should say something. Though several pieces on the disc (including the Symphony) were recorded in concert, there’s minimal audience noise; on the contrary, you get a fine sense of the electricity of BMOP in full flight.


Together, these three collections give powerful testimony to the dynamic quality of the post-World War 2 symphonic tradition and subtly remind of the importance of New England composers and orchestras in the development of major new symphonic works. Best of all, they strongly demonstrate the potency of the much-maligned and, in many ways, inexplicably neglected American symphonic tradition, which, if anything, has grown more in stature, innovation, and creativity over the years since 1945 than in the century-and-a-half preceding it. Lenny, that great champion of American music, should have known 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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