Good playing, bad karma at the BSO gala

Jonathan Biss & Miriam Fried , Miriam Fried
The Phoenix


It wasn't as bad as what happened at Opening Night at the Pops last May, when a patron who tried to get his neighbor to stop talking during the concert nearly got himself thrown off the Symphony Hall balcony. But it was still awful. At the gala Opening Night at Symphony, I was trapped in the first balcony next to an elegantly dressed woman who'd had far too much to drink and insisted on telling me her life story and how much she loved music - while the music was playing. When I wouldn't participate in this conversation, she began hurling obscenities. Her companion was no help, and neither was the shushing from surrounding patrons. Then, during the quietest parts of the music, came the weepy apologies, loud sniffling, and louder nose blowing. No intermission meant no escape. A BSO representative tried to get help, but nothing could be done without causing an even greater disturbance. Finally, the couple staggered out before the last piece. So this review is based more on what I was trying not to be distracted from than on what I was able to concentrate on.

The music was all Ravel (a BSO specialty): the scintillating Alborada del gracioso ("the dawn song of the buffoon") and the orgiastic second suite from Daphnis et Chloé, the jazzy G-major Piano Concerto, with French pianist and fashion plate Jean-Yves Thibaudet, and the ravishingly sly, sexy Shéhérazade, with Metropolitan Opera mezzo Susan Graham. Was it the relatively insubstantial, over-familiar program (much of it repeated from last season in Boston and Tanglewood) or the pricy tickets ($2500 top, including dinner and limo service) that left so many seats vacant at Symphony Hall? Who are the people these expensive fundraising galas attract?

Both James Levine and the orchestra seemed in great shape after their European tour. The playing was blindingly brilliant. Alborada was originally a piano piece, and its tripping rhythms are even more challenging for an entire orchestra, but the strings were impeccable, and bassoonist Richard Svoboda played an atmospheric solo. Daphnis too was a sonic spectacular. But there also seemed something a little vulgar about the conception. Not boring, certainly, but all surface, all dazzle, lacking the mysterious, alluring French-ness so magical when, say, Pierre Boulez conducts Ravel.

Something similar with Shéhérazade. Susan Graham has a lavish voice that she uses with real musical intelligence; yet in these nuanced settings of three exotic, ambiguously erotic poems by Tristan Klingsor, she too remained on the surface, projecting the hardy, healthy glow of satisfaction rather than Ravel's darker insinuations, his variegated shadows of longing and regret. Principal flute Elizabeth Rowe helped with a seductive flute obbligato in the second song, "La flûte enchantée" (though in the more famous flute solo in Daphnis, so erotic yet so chaste, she remained rather too aloof and monochromatic).

The hit of this French program was Thibaudet, whose glistening pianism and rive gauche lounge style (leaning back from the keyboard at an acute angle) embodied Ravel's debonair cool. The dreamy slow movement floated from point of light to point of light, and Robert Sheena's after-echo of the main melody on the English horn kept that dream alive.

Richard Pittman's Boston Musica Viva opened with a follow-up to last season's "Made in Germany" program, with pieces by two contemporary German composers not as well known here as in Germany: Detlev Granert's Geheimer Raum ("Secret Room") and composer/clarinettist Jörg Widmann's . . . umdüstert. . . ("darkened"), in which the phenomenal BMV clarinettist Rane Moore made her bass clarinet shriek, whisper, breathe heavily, and also sing. Both works suggest a kind of No Exit claustrophobia but in a dense international style that could have come from anywhere. (Widmann's own note reads: "The individual parts are not particularly interesting in themselves.") The "classic" piece was Hindemith's Der junge Magd ("The Young Maid"), a 1922 song cycle for string quartet, flute, and clarinet setting six chilling poems by Georg Trakl. Mezzo-soprano Pamela Dellal used her vocal velvet and natural warmth to convey the sadness and the terrors of Trakl's lonely young girl.

Pulitzer-winning Boston composer Gunther Schuller is German only by descent, but any excuse to get him to write a new piece is a good one. His Four Vignettes, commissioned for BMV, is a musical wonderland. In his program note, Schuller talks about what inspired these concise but evocative movements (a starry night, a Salvador Dalí exhibit - maybe a more accurate title would be Four Inspirations). Strings (Danielle Maddon, violin; Jan Mueller-Szeraws, cello), winds (Moore again on bass clarinet; Alicia DiDonatao, flute), keyboard (Geoffrey Burleson on piano, celesta, and a vintage Fender Rhodes electric piano), and percussion (Bob Schulz playing glockenspiel, vibraphone, and marimba) convey with great economy and lively contrasts worlds of color and feeling: Debussyan clouds in the opening Atmospherics; antic, "capricious" syncopations in Capriccio; a mysterious, otherworldly spaciousness and beauty, with secret allusions to three of Schuller's late wife's favorite pieces of music in Dreamscape: Found Objects (the Dalí movement); and what Schuller calls "a mini-concerto" for twinkling celesta and glockenspiel in the final zippy Scherzo Fantastico. The method is 12-tone but you wouldn't know it. Here all the notes are "interesting" - compelling, beautiful, personal. And the silences are as telling as the tones. Pittman scheduled it twice, and both performances were superb. A marvelous new addition to the repertoire.

A passel of pianists gave or were involved in ambitious recent recitals. Mexico's leading pianist, Jorge Federico Osorio, inaugurated this season's Boston Conservatory Piano Masters Series, and its new Steinway concert grand, with three big sonatas: Beethoven's Opus 7, Chopin's No. 3, and Brahms's No. 3. Osorio is a commanding player, though the action of the new piano might have been giving trouble. The piano seems also to have a greater range of color and dynamics than he was asking of it. Impressive as his playing was (despite the occasional slip), with big sound and some dazzling technical feats, each movement seemed to stop rather than conclude. Little seemed to connect. Or add up.

I had to miss the first half of Russell Sherman's packed Beethoven recital at Jordan Hall, but what I heard was treasurable: the Schubert-like second movement of Opus 90 ("sehr singbar" - very songful indeed) and a thrilling Appassionata in which Sherman found an uncanny balance between intimate and more public expressions of passion. He had what Osorio lacked, a kind of technical and emotional flexibility that endows every note with meaning and arouses in the listener the desire to hear what's coming next. He's always listening to himself, so every note is always leading us to the overwhelming question. Or answer.

Jonathan Biss is a younger pianist who has already developed similar abilities. He returned to the Gardner Museum with the distinguished violinist Miriam Fried, his mother, for two programs that included all three Brahms violin sonatas and both of Bartók's. I could attend only the second program, and it made me sorry to have missed the first. Both musicians combine power and delicacy in a widely varied spectrum of color and dynamics. And they listen to each other. Momentary wonders (Biss's embracing, enveloping arpeggios in the Brahms A-major; Fried's nuanced legato lines in Bartók's No. 2) were always subordinated to a larger whole. They weren't making any apparent effort to do this. As with Sherman, the genuine musical impulse seemed to come as natural as breathing.