Showy. Boston Symphony Orchestra, Bramwell Tovey conducting, with organist Cameron Carpenter. 12 January 2017.
In a brilliant and off-beat performance, the Boston Symphony Orchestra let loose its imposing organ Thursday evening at Symphony Hall.
Re-furbished in 2003, the magnificent Aeolian-Skinner, its golden façade pipes a looming presence over all the music-making that happens on the Symphony Hall stage, does not often enough get a workout. It did Thursday evening.
The program included Samuel Barber’s Toccata Festiva, a relatively new work by American minimalist Terry Riley, and Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations. Bramwell Tovey conducted.
Barber’s occasional piece celebrated the dedication of a different organ, another Aeolian-Skinner, at Philadelphia’s Academy of Music, former home of the Philadelphia Orchestra. The work was premiered in 1960.
A classic showpiece, Toccata Festiva still avoids leaving all the music to the grand instrument, enveloping the orchestra as well in the sound making. While the focus remains on the keyboardist—and Carpenter, placed center-stage, his back to the audience, allowing everyone to revel in the gymnastics required to manipulate the dizzying array of stops available at the console, drew plenty of attention—bright colors mimicking the organ leapt from the orchestra as well.
But the climax, a kind of cadenza (although this was no concerto, more a work for orchestra with soloist), marked Per pedali in the score, was virtuosically tapped danced by Carpenter. Playing an organ’s multiple manuals and using its stops seems hectic enough; to see a true virtuoso work through challenging foot-pedal writing makes listeners appreciate both the instrument and the performer even more.
Terry Riley’s concerto At the Royal Majestic celebrated another organ; it was commissioned for Carpenter and the instrument called Hurricane Mama in the home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Walt Disney Concert Hall. Carpenter premiered it under the direction of John Adams in 2014.
The work developed through years of improvisation—Riley had the run of that organ, spending many late nights there (as he conveys in the notes), improvising. At the Royal Majestic belies that genesis; it’s best thought of as a pastiche of sound-worlds, influences and possibilities, impetuous in its ideas.
The work had many strengths, most important being its blending of soloist with ensemble. The organ can be such a dominant instrument that concertos composed for it often treat the orchestra as an afterthought—especially the winds, whose sound-world is so beautifully copied by the instrument.
Riley approached this in dual fashion: first, he omitted the centerpiece of the wind section—the oboes—entirely from the score. He also buttressed the lower range of the winds—with no less than five bassoons, along with a contra, as well as alto sax and flugelhorn (all delineated hilariously by Tovey in his introduction to the piece; he referred to the flugelhorn as “preferred by the most musical trumpeters”).
Apart from those practical concerns, Riley also wrote assiduously for the orchestra’s instruments, often relegating the soloist to a supporting role. It made for a sparkling concerto, truly taking advantage of all the musicians and instruments onstage.
The first movement (no need to duplicate Riley’s own ideas about the works extended influences, ranging from film ideas to the visual arts and the usual vernacular musical forms like ragtime and gospel) opened with dark dance, no strings, the soloist paired off with the rest of the orchestra in a kaleidoscopic range of ideas. Ives came to mind, for its restlessness.
The middle section brought out some mystery, a less episodic approach, and more use of the strings. The finale was yet a different set of ideas, heavily percussive, with the organ frequently used to cover melodic ideas originating in the horns and elsewhere. Stepping away from that, a cadenza served as a coda, Carpenter’s footwork on display again.
The beautifully interwoven work—not a hint of minimalism, by the way, and tonally secure throughout—had its spell immediately dashed by Carpenter’s encores. Some sense has to be used in choosing how to send off an audience.
He played two (encouraged, it seemed, by Tovey): A Bach gigue—fair enough—and then an arrangement, probably his own, of “Fly Me to the Moon.” The nature of both pieces, with their “look at me” virtuosity, ended whatever musical kinship that had been established by Riley’s collegial masterpiece.
Tovey conducted Elgar’s Enigma Variations after intermission. It was a curious programmatic match, but the conductor, working without a score, made an impressively coherent document out Elgar’s wide-ranging set of variations. The orchestra enjoys Tovey’s presence—that seems obvious. So did the audience.
The Boston Symphony Orchestra, Bramwell Tovey conducting, performs Barber’s Toccata Festiva, Riley’s At the Royal Majestic, and Elgar’s Enigma Variations with organ soloist Cameron Carpenter on Friday afternoon and Saturday evening at Symphony Hall. bso.org; 888-266-1200.