These concerts, conducted by Thomas Adès, were the culminating event in his impressive first season as the BSO’s new “artistic partner.”
By Jonathan Blumhofer
Perhaps it was appropriate that, for the week that saw Halloween, the Chicago Cubs win the World Series, and the Republican nominee for the White House receive the endorsement of the Ku Klux Klan, the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s (BSO) collective musical thoughts turned to the apocalypse. Granted, this weekend’s subscription series of pieces by Benjamin Britten, Jean Sibelius, and Thomas Adès was planned well over a year in advance of the week’s events, so its thematic aptness can maybe just be chalked up to coincidence. Then again, weirdly prophetic things like this happen every now and again.
Regardless, these concerts, conducted by Adès, were the culminating event in his first season as the BSO’s new “artistic partner” and, if the orchestra wanted to make a bigger statement with their new colleague, it’s hard to imagine how they could have bettered his eight-day residency (which also included a performance of Schubert’s Winterreise with Ian Bostridge and a concert with the Boston Symphony Chamber Players last Sunday). Saturday’s orchestral finale culminated in the local premiere of Adès’ most recent major orchestral score, Totentanz. And what a piece it is.
Any way you cut it, Totentanz (“Dance of Death”) is a remarkable achievement. It sets an anonymous, 15th-century text that appeared underneath a frieze in the Marienkirche in Lübeck. The painting was destroyed during World War 2, but pictures still exist of its depiction of Death greeting every tier of society in order – from Pope to baby – and inviting each to join in his dance. Adès, whose musical language is at once cutting-edge and straightforward, was clearly inspired by it.
The piece is laid out as a series of vignettes that appear as duets between Death (sung, on Saturday night, by the excellent baritone Mark Stone) and his victims (this weekend the terrific mezzo-soprano Christianne Stotijn). Appropriately, there’s lots of snarling brass and screaming winds. A huge percussion battery (eight players) adds delicious – but, often enough, discreet – color to the proceedings.
Rhythmically, Adès has long experimented with complex patterns and Totentanz offers plenty of metrical fragmentation to go along with the usual triplets and quintuplets. While its opening scenes move somewhat deliberately – Death argues with the Emperor and both Cardinal and King take some persuading – the piece never dawdles, dramatically.
Indeed, the first two-thirds or so of the Totentanz progress with inexorable momentum. Over its last section (from the Parish Clerk to the Child), the music takes on more of a delicate mien. The Clerk’s dialogue is accompanied by glassy string textures. A rollicking dance attends the Peasant. The Maiden is led with generous lightness. For the Child, Adès crafted a lengthy, tender section that most clearly evokes Mahler and Berg. Here the music stretches time even as the implacable descent into the abyss continues.
Saturday’s performance was magnificently sung by both Stotijn and Stone. The former, who gave Totentanz’s world premiere in London in 2013 as well as the U.S. premiere in New York in 2015, delivered her varied parts with warmth and intensity. Stone, who was making his BSO debut, sang with stentorian power and concentrated focus.
Adès drew playing of ferocious energy from the BSO. This is an orchestra that, when it’s challenged in the right ways, always responds and Adès, since his first appearance here five years ago, knows how to bring out their best. That he did, the BSO brass shining from the start of their opening fanfare-like gestures right to the sobering end. The winds and strings alternately slashed and tore their way through Totentanz’s busy, first-half textures. When things became a bit less aggressive in the second, the orchestra responded in kind, with playing of vigorous lightness. The closing pages were simply devastating.
Saturday’s concert opened with a shattering performance of another death-influenced score, Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem. This weekend’s performances marked just the fourth time the BSO has played the Sinfonia since Serge Koussevitzky led the local premiere in 1942. Let’s hope it comes back more frequently in the future: like Totentanz, it’s a truly great piece. And Adès’ interpretation of it demonstrated that fact, violently unsettled and nervously resolute as it was.
The first movement drove in relentless circles, the tension building with each iteration of its big, wailing theme. In the second, the music all but hurtled off the rails. I’ve never heard the harrowing transition to the finale played with greater abandon or technical control: Saturday’s traversal of these bars was as breathtaking a display of trust among and between orchestral musicians and conductor as you’ll experience anywhere. The finale sang, a bit cooler than warm, and totally unsentimental. Still, the music’s dissolution into the final D-major cadence was nothing short of breathtaking.
In between these macabre essays came Sibelius’s weirdest tone poem, Tapiola. The last major piece he wrote, it draws on folk-like tunes and gentle wind figures that are, eventually, interrupted by menacing blasts from the brass. Then the music suddenly ends, on three radiant, if enigmatic, major chords.
Like the Sixth Symphony, it’s startlingly direct music with no pretenses, though not lacking some lovely touches. On Saturday, the BSO seemed to revel in their first crack at it in more than forty years. Chilly flute melodies and dulcet oboe solos alternated with warm string textures and stormy brass outbursts. Adès, much as Andris Nelsons in similar large-scale, single-movement works, was content to simply let the music unfold. The result was a finely woven, strongly organic performance, evocative of the immensity and timelessness of nature and space. For once in the night – even if just for a few minutes – Death was given some proper perspective.
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.