Saturday, February 25, 2006

Boston Symphony Orchestra

Tonight we will finally make our first trip (at least my first trip) to the Boston Symphony. Here is the Boston Globe review that convinced me to get my act together:

Passion rules the night in BSO's 'Gurrelieder'

Many in the audience were on their feet, applauding, before intermission of last night's performance of Arnold Schoenberg's ''Gurrelieder" by James Levine the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and by the end of the concert the response was unanimous.

''Gurrelieder" is one of the composer's early masterpieces, composed mostly in 1901 and 1902, although Schoenberg didn't complete the orchestration for another decade. The work is a series of narrative songs that recount the old Danish legend of King Waldemar, his beloved Tove, and his jealous Queen who engineers Tove's death. The King mocks God and is condemned to ride nightly from dusk to dawn for eternity, but the King finds Tove again in the splendor of the natural world.

In the music, as the work progresses, you can hear the 19th century pass into the 20th, and Schoenberg evolve from the world of Brahms, Mahler, and Richard Strauss into the world that he both perceived and helped to create.

The work always stirs an audience but it is seldom performed because of its size, cost, and difficulty. Last night the orchestra assembled a world-class team of soloists. It took tenor Johan Botha and charismatic soprano Karita Mattila awhile to warm up and ride their voices over the orchestra in the songs for Waldemar and Tove, but both came through in the later songs which Schoenberg scored more considerately -- Mattila did seem swept away by passion, and rose thrillingly to the great climax of her last song. Botha, who looks like a cross between a scholar and a bounty hunter, surmounted the most strenuous passages with impressive security and he never forced. Given the opportunity, he can also deliver text with sensitivity. The rolling bass-baritone of Albert Dohmen was luxury casting as a peasant; tenor Paul Groves achieved a convincing physical and musical characterization of the fool/jester without quite meeting every vocal demand.

The veteran Viennese tenor Waldemar Kmentt has sung three roles in this work in the course of his 56-year career. As the narrator, he delivered the speech/song with musicality, insight and instinct, occasionally coloring a word with his fondly remembered singing voice. Lorraine Hunt Lieberson was magnificent in the tragic narrative of the Wood-Dove who sings of Tove's death. Wearing a period dress in dove gray, her hair done in feathery style, Lieberson sang with flaring, all-giving tone; tragic splendor; and soul-sharing communication.

The huge orchestra -- 8 flutes, 10 horns -- covered itself with glory throughout. It also covered the men of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus too much of the time, but the full TFC sounded like a sunburst at the end. Levine has probably conducted more performances of ''Gurrelieder" than anyone in the work's history; he helped the performers deliver every dimension of the piece -- its roots in tradition and its modernity; its peculiarities and its reassurances; its particularity and its universality.

James Levine, conductor
Karita Mattila, soprano (Tove)
Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, mezzo-soprano, (Wood Dove)
Johan Botha, tenor (Waldemar)
Paul Groves, tenor (Klaus Narr)
Albert Dohmen, baritone (Peasant)
Waldemar Kmentt, tenor (Speaker)

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