Schuller, Ax, Eroica. Nelsons leads the BSO
Gunther Schuller knew how to win a room. The garrulous composer (multiple hyphens needed to truly encompass his skills), who passed in June 2015, made an impression. The clothes. The voice. The endless stream of ideas, enthusiasms, jokes and insights. Truly endless.
More importantly, the accomplishments. If anyone fulfilled the maxim “it ain’t bragging if you can do it,” it was Gunther.
The Boston Symphony Orchestra brought back Schuller’s “Seven Studies on Themes of Paul Klee” Thursday evening at Symphony Hall. Paired with weighty pieces, Mozart’s piano concerto No. 22 (Emanuel Ax) and Beethoven’s Eroica, all under Andris Nelsons, Schuller’s characterful sketches still snatched some of the spotlight.
He’s not the only composer to try to transform the energy of visual art to music, and this wasn’t the only time he tried either. Living in New York in the 50s, Schuller spent hours at the Met, and elsewhere, soaking up sights and ideas.
The Klee studies work their way through specific paintings, and the composer left specific notes about the inspiration and the music he constructed. You can read them in Robert Kirzinger’s notes, which not only include Schuller’s original comments, but elaborate distinctively, as usual, with Kirzinger’s own perspective.
The strength of the Klee studies comes from identity: the pieces not only fulfill their stated musical mission, but sound like Schuller as well—in their diversity.
The weakness comes from the scant orchestration: the music is always interesting, but the entire ensemble rarely gets exercise. Instead, Schuller focuses on specific sections for specific colors: a wacky blues progression in the brass and clarinets for Kleiner blauer Teufel; a changing trio—but never more than a trio—for Abstraktes Trio; extended flute (offstage—wow—by Elizabeth Rowe), viola (Steven Ansell), oboe (Keisuke Wakao), and harp (Jessica Zhou), in the overlong Arabische Stadt.
Emanuel Ax also knows how to win a room—and his stagemates (while we’re at it, count Andris Nelsons in on that as well). In brief, his partnering for Mozart’s No. 22, E-flat, K 482 was a thrill to experience.
The concerto lives off its middle movement theme-and-variations, remarkable in their character and instrumentation (each variation surprises). The filigrees in piano, echoing in the orchestra, of the Allegro opening to the finale were sublime.
Nelsons will record all the Beethoven symphonies with the Vienna Philharmonic, and participate in a 250th birth celebration cycle with that orchestra as well in 2020. You can hear his experimentation with the works every time he conducts here. In this Eroica, you may not have agreed with all the choices, but he sure knew what he wanted.
In particular, he had a notion about how he wanted slurred phrases to sound, and he got it. He alternated between his usual grand gestures, and leaving the orchestra on their own. His early tempos were idiosyncratic; the Largo didn’t sound like the Largo until the late repeat of the opening phrase. Some episodic phrases got stepped on.
But it was a clear vision, and if this is a journey, over the next few years, toward a refreshed look at the works, culminating in the Deutsche Grammophon recordings, stamp my passport please.
This program repeats Friday afternoon, Saturday and Tuesday evenings. bso.org; 866-266-1200.
CADENCES: Fun remembrance, from a long ago interview with Schuller: he played on Miles Davis’s “Birth of the Cool” as a session musician in 1950 (french horn—“a beastly instrument,” he called it.) “Seven Studies” got its premiere in 1959, with the Minnesota Orchestra, under Antal Dorati. There was some in-joke running through the orchestra during the Schuler performance, with laughs and nods. Who knows? Such things are a distraction, however subtle.
Ax played his own cadenzas at the end of the first and third movements of the concerto; Mozart did not leave any. Ax has certainly earned that priviledge: he first played this concerto with the BSO in 1980, under Leinsdorf, and subsequently with Seiji, Conlon, Haitink, Bringuier and Dutoit (this summer at Tanglewood). Curious that the BSO did not first perform this concerto until 1933 (Egon Petri, under Koussevitsky).
Associate principal cellist Martha Babcock, who has sat in the principal’s chair during the late Jules Eskin’s long illness, and since his passing as well, has requested to return to the section. She was there last night. Mihail Jojatu will occupy the first chair until auditions are held—this spring, says the orchestra’s press staff. A new associate will be named after the principal is auditioned. Certainly many fine candidates in this eminent section.