Concert Preview: BSO’s Robert Sheena on George Tsontakis’ “Sonnets”

The English horn, of course, is no stranger to haunting melodies: its distinctive timbre lends it extremely well to a certain type of wistful musical expression.

Robert Sheena Photo: Boston Symphony Orchestra.

English hornist Robert Sheena. Photo: Boston Symphony Orchestra.

By Jonathan Blumhofer

It’s been mighty satisfying to have experienced such invigorating and creative music making over the first two installments of the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s (BSO) three-week-long commemoration of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. Alas, all things must end and this week’s subscription concerts mark both the conclusion of the Orchestra’s mini-festival and the windup of Andris Nelsons’ first Boston residency of 2016 (he returns for concerts with the ensemble in March and for most of April). But first come this weekend’s programs (February 11 through 13), which are nicely varied and filled with rarities including Richard Strauss’s Macbeth (last heard at Symphony Hall in 1911) and Antonin Dvorak’s Othello Overture (last played by the BSO in Boston in 1967). Also on tap is the world premiere of George Tsontakis’ Sonnets, a “tone poem for English horn and orchestra.” It was written especially for the BSO’s English hornist, Robert Sheena, and I spoke with him earlier this week about the new piece and how it fits into the current festival.

That Tsontakis, an American-born composer of Greek descent, has never before had a work performed by the BSO is somewhat – though not entirely – surprising, given the orchestra’s historic focus on American composers with local connections. He’s a known quantity, though, having been based in the greater New York area since the 1970s (he currently teaches at the Bard College Conservatory in Annandale-on-Hudson) and performed by most of the country’s leading orchestras. Tsontakis is well-represented on disc: much of his published music has been recorded. And not a few honors have come his way, too, including a Guggenheim Fellowship and the 2005 Grawemeyer Award (for his Violin Concerto no. 2; coincidentally, Hans Abrahamsen received the same prize this year for let me tell you, the highlight of last weekend’s festival program). Tsontakis’ BSO debut, even if it’s a bit belated, is clearly well deserved.

Even so, it might have come about a bit sooner had certain plans fallen into place. “Former [BSO] music director James Levine liked my playing and wanted to commission a solo work with orchestra for me to perform,” Sheena explained. “For a variety of reasons, it never really got off the ground [until BSO artistic administrator] Tony Fogg came up with the brilliant idea of linking a work to our Shakespeare festival with a new composition based on some of the sonnets.”

All’s well that ends well, indeed.

For the new piece, Tsontakis selected four sonnets – numbers 30 (“When to the sessions of sweet silent thought”), 12 (“When I do count the clock that tells the time”), 60 (“Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore”), and 75 (“So are you to my thoughts as food to life”) – and crafted a series of musical reactions to them. In much of the work, Tsontakis’ responses are essentially impressionistic, which neatly tie in to the motivation behind Hans Werner Henze’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream-inspired Symphony no. 8, heard during the BSO’s first concerts of this Shakespeare series.

“The first three [movements] are somewhat abstract,” Sheena told me, “in that the composer is writing for the character or atmosphere of each sonnet. For example, Sonnet no. 30 (movement 1) speaks to regret and longing, but also hopefulness. The opening English horn soliloquy in that movement is full of longing. However, the last sonnet Tsontakis set (no. 75), a love sonnet, is more like writing a melody to text and then removing the text, a literal song-without-words.” The whole piece he describes as “unfolding lines of haunting melody with mysterious, deeply, darkly beautiful harmony.”

The English horn, of course, is no stranger to haunting melodies: its distinctive timbre lends it extremely well to a certain type of wistful musical expression, as anyone who’s heard Sibelius’ The Swan of Tuonela can attest. But it’s also a versatile apparatus, possessing a wide range and capable of remarkably agile, virtuosic flights. As a solo concerto instrument, it’s among the less well-represented in the wind family, though in recent decades a number of concertos (or near-concertos) by composers like Aaron Jay Kernis (whose Colored Field also received a Grawemeyer), James MacMillan (The World’s Ransoming), Ned Rorem, Vincent Persichetti, Bruno Maderna, Nicholas Maw, and Peter Vasks have at least helped to start remedying that situation.

As Sheena explained it, Tsontakis’ Sonnets endeavors to balance the instrument’s traditional resonance while also pushing it a bit out of its comfort zone. “The English horn is a perfect instrument for carrying a vocal melody,” he pointed out, “and, furthermore, is often associated in the repertoire already with music that is related to love, longing and death – subjects, as we know, that are frequently addressed by Shakespeare in his sonnets.

“[In Sonnets] there are plenty of places where the music confirms the English horn’s unique ability to express plaintive melodies and long lines, but George has many tricks up his sleeve, so to speak. The third movement, for example, is full of very rapid ‘wave-like’ motion (Sonnet 60: ‘Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore’) on the instrument (and in the orchestra), covering its entire range. Also, he has me playing quite frequently on the highest notes possible – a challenge for me as an instrumentalist not employed much yet by other composers!”

So, how does Sheena recommend preparing for hearing the premiere of Sonnets? First, one can listen to any number of Tsontakis works beforehand, including the Violin Concerto no. 2 and Man of Sorrows, the last a substantive piano concerto/meditation on Christ’s Passion written in response to depictions of the event in medieval Byzantine icons. Most importantly, though, come with an open mind. “I think the George’s music is at once highly original and complex yet also quite quickly agreeable and accessible for an audience,” Sheena opined. “I’m hopeful that the audience will find they respond to and like the work immediately.”

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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