There can’t be a more sincere way of remembering, than with music.
Words help, but too often simply dissolve into a string of accomplishments. Physical tributes—plaques, plantings, statues—whither away, ignored after a short time.
Music vanishes after a time, and so it lasts. Compelling music begs for renewal—the central premise of a memorial.
Mark-Anthony Turnage created “Remembering,” a tribute to the son of his friend and collaborator, jazz guitarist John Scofield. As it drifted off Thursday evening at Symphony Hall, you sensed it could remain in the repertory. Generations going forward might not remember John Scofield, or his son Evan—gone in his 20s from cancer—but they might encounter this work, and wonder. Let’s hope so.
“Remembering” was part of program Thursday evening that was small in musical ambition but broad in emotion. Andris Nelsons conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra, leading off with Haydn’s D major symphony (No. 93), and concluding with Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations.
Turnage has had four previous BSO performances, the first dating back almost 25 years. “Remembering” was a joint commission, and has already been performed by the London Symphony Orchestra and the Berlin Philharmonic (both with Simon Rattle). Rattle shaped the work by suggesting that Turnage compose it without violins.
That instrumentation—Nelsons sat a large viola section stage right, and extensive cello and bass sections opposite, with harp, extensive percussion, winds and horns—suited the work’s moods.
As a memorial, it honors Evan Scofield by not being simple. The work begins as a straight rhythm, then turns heavily syncopated. The harp stays active, offering accents. Both violas and cellos have large sections (12/11), but frequently divided in two, or used in smaller groupings.
A slower second movement begins without the strings at all, segues into a triplet dominated middle section—a kind of melodic ostinato—then disappears with a flute line. The third movement is expressive and immediately appealing. Both cellos and violas are split in two, swapping a dotted triplet figure that is only slightly altered. An insistent cowbell, sometimes on the beat but mostly just missing, sounds throughout. That creates a feeling that is both pastoral and comic, or just idiosyncratic.
The finale—propelled by another triplet figure—is marked by elegiac solo lines beautifully expressed by principals Steven Ansell (viola) and Blaise Déjardin (cello). Again the sections are divided, to great effect. A terrific, unusual chord at the cadence ends the piece with an expectation of continuance.
“Remembering” is a strong statement, a piece that really works at first hearing. Let’s hope the BSO—now deeply committed to Turnage after five separate programs—repeats the work in future concerts.
A transition to Elgar’s gripping Enigma Variations came easily. Not a memorial in the tragic sense, it still evokes the composer’s friendships, musically. Ansell again had several solo moments, deftly played. Nelsons will certainly cover a range of music in his fall appearances—Mahler, Shostakovich, Beethoven, Bach, not to mention compositions by his compatriots Dzenitis and Einfelde. His Elgar was touching and attentive.
His Haydn as well, which opened the evening. The symphony rarely strays out of the home key; its inventive side shows up in the second movement, which begins with a string quartet, repeats tutti, then comes back in a brisker tempo later in the movement. The scherzo mocks the melody, as does the finale. Although the first violins started out in a puzzling manner—out of focus it sounded, with looks all around like “What just happened here?”—the rest of the work was alertly played.
This Boston Symphony Orchestra program repeats tonight (Haydn and Elgar only), then Saturday and Tuesday evenings. 888-266-1200; bso.org.