This season’s three-week commemoration of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death – the first such thematic series of Andris Nelsons’ BSO directorship – got off to a compelling start.
By Jonathan Blumhofer
It’s been a while since the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO) has offered an extended festival of any sort at Symphony Hall. So it’s a pleasure to report that the first installment of this season’s three-week commemoration of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death – the first such thematic series of Andris Nelsons’ BSO directorship – gets off to a compelling start. Indeed, this weekend’s opener, built around music inspired by A Midsummer Night’s Dream by Carl Maria von Weber, Hans Werner Henze, and Felix Mendelssohn, hardly misses a step or a note.
On the whole, there’s much about which to be excited over these coming weeks. That each of the BSO’s programs on each offers just one repertory staple is commendable; that the bulk of what comprises this festival is both challenging, unfamiliar, and/or brand new is something to celebrate. Over the next three weeks, in fact, the BSO is doing exactly what it should be doing: presenting music that provokes, disturbs, delights, entertains, and defies our assumptions about what music should do and be in equal measure. That it also so richly reminds us of the timelessness, depth, and relevance of Shakespeare’s work is but icing on the metaphorical cake.
It was hard to escape any of this on Saturday’s program, which opened with a warm, lithe account of Weber’s Overture to Oberon. Weber’s Oberon doesn’t focus on the story of A Midsummer Night’s Dream – it’s something of a sequel, following up on adventures Oberon and Puck embark upon during the Crusades – but none of that really detracted from its inclusion on Saturday night. From the burnished horn solo with which it opens (played with admirable warmth by James Somerville) to the driving main theme to the sweet, lyrical second subject (beautifully rendered by principal clarinet William Hudgins), this was an Oberon light on its feet, crisply articulated, and singing with purpose.
Henze’s Symphony no. 8 offered a weightier, more ambiguous contrast. The piece was commissioned by the BSO in 1993 and was written as a response to certain scenes in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Thus, the first movement, a swirling, mysterious essay, takes as its basis Puck’s declaration that he “shall put a girdle about the earth in forty minutes” in his search for Oberon’s desired flower. Filled with edgy gestures for muted brass, scurrying winds and strings, plus ample helpings of subtle, shimmering writing for percussion, the movement goes a long way to evoking the magic wood and the creatures who live therein, as well as Puck’s journey. It also emphasizes the play’s dark undertones, with its seething expressive tumult and unsettled melodic writing.
Dark humor marks the big second movement, itself a response to the scenes between Titania and Bottom in his ass’s head. The latter is represented with boorish brass outbursts and over-emphasized rustic rhythms; the former by way of sweet (by comparison) string lines and violin solos. In the finale, Henze attempted to capture the spirit of “the peaceful and gentle and lovely epilogue of the play” with busy (if flowing) melodic lines and an aura that’s generally more relaxed and nostalgic than the previous movements. But the several orchestral swells near the end suggests that the reconciliation brought about by this music may only be temporary.
In all, it’s a complex piece that offers no easy answers and certainly requires more than one listening to fully appreciate (on that score, it’s only been played by the BSO once between its premiere and now, in 2001). That said, Saturday’s performance was cogent and energetic. The many solos – highlighted by Malcolm Lowe’s several turns in the middle movement and Robert Sheena’s melting account of the English horn solo in the finale – were done with color and precision. Nelsons is an uncommonly fine conductor of contemporary fare and, while Henze isn’t always the most satisfying of 20th-century German composers, his interpretation of this symphony was persuasive. Hopefully, conductor and orchestra will take another crack at it sooner rather than later.
After intermission came the complete incidental music to Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. And here the BSO went out on something of a limb, semi-staging excerpts from Shakespeare’s play and including some “Behind the Score” music appreciation/biographical scenes. The latter, thankfully, was dropped pretty quickly, though they did offer an interesting bridge between the famous Overture and the subsequent incidental music (which Mendelssohn wrote, literally, a lifetime later).
As for the truncated play itself, Saturday’s adaptation (done by Bill Barclay, the music director of Shakespeare’s Globe in London) cut to the heart of A Midsummer Night’s Dream’s action, namely scenes between Karen MacDonald’s Titania and Will Lyman’s rather gruff Oberon. Carson Elrod, who played Puck, Bottom, and Mendelssohn, proved resourceful and and comically-well-timed. He and Antonio Weissinger delivered a terrific enactment of the Pyramus and Thisbe entertainment and Weissinger recited Puck’s epilogue (“If we shadows have offended…”) with mischievous innocence.
Though necessarily leaving out much of the meat of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Barclay’s reworking of it did, by returning the music to something approaching its initial context, do much to bring it to life. Certainly there were some superfluous elements – Hilary Leben’s videos, which often evoked scenes of nature, were largely unnecessary – but, on the whole, this was a concept that clicked.
Nelsons led the BSO in a lively performance of this well-known score. There were moments in the Overture and Scherzo that might have been more texturally pristine and, at a couple of spots in the Nocturne, intonation bordered on the uneasy, but the ensemble’s reading was largely triumphant. The Intermezzo burbled with tumult, the opening bars of the Nocturne soared, and the trio of the Wedding March drove forward with a remarkable urgency.
It was wonderful, too, to have Amanda Forsythe and Abigail Fischer singing the score’s two songs (“You spotted snakes” and “Through this house give glimmering light”). Forsythe brought a clarion tone to her contributions, Fischer a creamy warmth; they complemented one another – and the women of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, who sang with them – admirably.
At the very end, in, perhaps, an effort to bridge the distance between Shakespeare, Mendelssohn, and the rest of us, the audience got to participate in the proceedings by holding up little LED candles (to illustrate the “glimmering light”) as the closing scene of the play unfolded on stage. It was a smart touch – I can’t remember the last time the BSO offered anything so interactive to the house on a regular program – affecting and, in its way, involving.
How the rest of the festival builds on this opening weekend’s concerts of course remains to be seen. But for all involved – Nelsons, the BSO, the creative team that orchestrated this presentation – this first program was a swinging success, a vindication for the organization’s approach to this anniversary, and further evidence of the growing rapport between the BSO and its (still relatively-) new music director.
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.