Saturday’s pairing demonstrated exactly the kind of risky programming the Boston Symphony Orchestra shouldn’t be afraid to explore, even when it doesn’t all quite come together.
By Jonathan Blumhofer
For those who like thematic orchestral programs, Symphony Hall was the place to be this weekend, as the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO) explored the nebulous concept of hope as expressed in music. Conductor Daniel Harding, making his BSO debut, led the orchestra in the American premiere of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Speranza (whose title translates as “hope”) and Mahler’s ultimate song cycle, Das Lied von der Erde, which, if it doesn’t exactly define hopefulness, remains one of Mahler’s most life-affirming scores.
Now fifty-three, Turnage is one of many composers whose music has been strongly influenced by jazz, thanks in part to his studies with Gunther Schuller, and his music often straddles the line between populism and high art. (Jazz isn’t his only non-classical influence: his 2010 curtain raiser, Hammered Out, riffed Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies.”) But, as with most prolific composers, Turnage’s output can be frustratingly inconsistent. At its best, his music can be filled with pummeling rhythmic figures, splashes of instrumental color, and a fetching melodic sensibility. It can also plumb some pretty dark depths (such as in 1994’s Blood on the Floor and his 2010 opera, Anna Nicole). At its worst, though (as in 2004’s interminable Scherzoid and last year’s slightly-less-obnoxious Frieze), the music fails to get off the ground and all that’s left is a thunderous din of rhythm lying flat on its back, trying and failing to kick itself into orbit.
To judge from Saturday’s performance, Speranza, Turnage’s longest orchestral piece to date, possesses elements of both types of music. On the plus side, it does have a few big things going for it. For one, the writing is impressively lyrical. I can’t recall the last contemporary orchestral score I heard that was filled with so many long-breathed, lyrical melodic lines. The structure of the piece, too, is clear and decidedly audience friendly, though Turnage’s harmonic language remains nicely pungent throughout most of its duration. And there are wonderful touches in the orchestration, including some very unexpected instruments like the cimbalom and duduk (an Armenian reed flute).
Still, I couldn’t shake the feeling that whatever message Turnage hoped to convey in Speranza (and it seemed a pretty grim one, to judge from the many ominous, heaving chords and threatening percussive outbursts) exceeded his grasp. Part of the reason for this has to do with the music’s organization. Though it’s cast in four movements, three of them are slow and there’s too little variety between them. The third movement, essentially a scherzo, stands out for its contrast but only left me wishing that more of its spirit had found its way into the other three movements.
The other problem with the score is the way Turnage develops his material. In essence, he doesn’t. In lieu of invention, Turnage opts for two tools not unfamiliar to many composers of his generation: repetition and volume. In tandem, these two devices can work very well: the finale of Ives’s Orchestral Set no. 2, which the BSO played two weeks ago, is essentially a big crescendo underneath staggered repetitions of a simple, eight-bar tune. But in the Ives, both are employed as a means to a profound expressive end; in Speranza, there’s the sense that the techniques are the end, in and of themselves. And that’s problematic.
Harding, who conducted the world premiere of Speranza last year in London, presided over a solid reading by the BSO. This is an orchestra that nearly always does well in contemporary music, and, on Saturday, made the most of the score’s many shifting colors. Strong contributions from the percussion and brass sections stood out, as did, in the finale, echoing stands of violins passing a short melodic phrase across the orchestra.
Even if Speranza doesn’t really add up to the sum of its parts, the individual movements – especially the second and fourth, which feature the plaintive duduk – might make welcome concert appearances independent of one another. But, as a whole, the piece collapses under its own weight.
It was, perhaps, unfortunate that Speranza appeared on the same program as Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, that composer’s most original and brilliant symphony, because the sophistication of Mahler’s musical language and technique ended up accentuating the shallowness of Speranza’s. If only Harding had maintained a surer grasp of Mahler’s writing throughout.
To say that a conductor needs to be a certain age to conduct certain music is, perhaps, condescending, but there was a sense throughout Harding’s reading of Das Lied that a more experienced hand would have been able to mine many more of this score’s cavernous depths. Only the big finale, “Der Abschied,” really gelled: it featured the orchestra’s most electrifying playing of the night, every nuance realized and gesture exaggerated. The first five movements, despite periodic moments of great warmth and inspired playing, sounded monolithic, plagued by seeming disinterest in the orchestra and sporadic ensemble issues. Throughout, the BSO was following the singers, rather than collaborating with them, and this piece – of all Mahler’s music for voice and orchestra – requires accompanimental flexibility that just wasn’t there on Saturday.
Happily, the vocal soloists more than delivered. Tenor Michael Schade brought muscular tone and robust power to his three lieder, though the orchestra swamped a couple of his big climaxes. Mezzo-soprano Christianne Stotijn suffered a similar fate in the fourth movement, “Von der Schönheit,” but brought a strong focus and creamy warmth to each of her contributions. The highlight was, appropriately, the great finale, which she sang with haunting power and utter conviction.
Now thirty-five, Harding is the same age Andris Nelsons will be when he takes over the BSO next year. Saturday’s Mahler indicated, perhaps, some of the interpretive growing pains BSO audiences can expect in future seasons with a young music director still developing his chops, but also much of the promise – as demonstrated in the mesmerizing account of “Der Abschied” – of what’s to come. The Turnage, too, even if it wasn’t what it could have been, was a noble effort, and Saturday’s pairing demonstrated exactly the kind of risky programming the BSO shouldn’t be afraid to explore, even when it doesn’t all quite come together.
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.