Search This Blog

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

A Tuneful Tour of the 20th Century

Once upon the Web Dept.: Classical music, that poor bastard, supports little in the way of serious journalism. For a brief while, a decade ago, I was paid fairly nicely to write for the short-lived web-based magazine Here’s another of my vintage reviews.


WRITTEN FOR DAWN UPSHAW, Kaija Saariaho’s Château de l’âme has the Upshavian stamp all over it thanks to the soprano’s recent recording. For its Boston Symphony premiere two years ago, soprano Valdine Anderson took the solo, and reprised her performance at Tanglewood as Robert Spano conducted a 20th-century-spanning program. How does Anderson compare? She does what’s absolutely necessary: she makes the piece her own.

Kaija Saariaho
Which isn’t easy when you’re going up against Upshaw, whose mannerisms are well suited to a work like this. If Anderson was more reserved with portamento, her clear, well-focused voice carried its own brand of emotional intensity.

It’s not just the voice that counts: it’s voice-with-orchestra and voice-with-chorus, the latter an ensemble of eight women drawn from the Tanglewood Music Center. Singing (or chanting or speaking) softly, and therefore lightly miked, they reinforced the images of womanhood evoked by the songs.

Although the texts are drawn from ancient Hindu and Egyptian sources, the themes are timeless: woman as lover, as mother, as child of the earth, a more complete portrait than women tend to get in love song cycles. Saariaho’s musical language is lean and mysterious, often discordant, but ultimately summoning a hauntingly beautiful overall effect.

Conductor Robert Spano navigated the orchestra through a many-hued palette, from the breezes of “À la Terre” to the fire-alarm insistence of “Pour repousser l’esprit.” Although based in Paris, Saariaho is very much a product of Finland’s fertile musical scene, and her music shares some of the qualities of mood and melody popularized by Sibelius.

Appropriate, then, to finish the program with Sibelius’s Symphony No. 2, most accessible of his symphonies and a tour-de-force for an orchestra that also rewards careful listening.

Miriam Fried
Spano was working with players who know the piece well, but he shaped it with more surprises than current play-it-safe conductors tend to impart. Broad dynamic contrasts and a careful match of sound from section to section helped keep the piece exciting, and he bridged the seeming disjointedness of several sections through sheer energy. There’s an inevitability about this work independent of its familiarity: those disparate elements come together as the piece goes on, especially in the third and fourth movements. By the time we near the finale, it should be downright hypnotic – and so it was.

Because violinist Pamela Frank is still sidelined by a hand injury, Miriam Fried stepped in as soloist in the Barber Violin Concerto. Here’s a piece only lately getting its due as a basic repertory contender, and a player like Fried does wonders for it. Affecting in the sentimental first movement without ever tipping to the cloying side, she has technique enough to render invisible the challenges of the first two movements. Which made the concluding Presto all the more jaw-dropping. A wild perpetuum mobile with Brubeck-foreshadowing rhythms, it pushes the soloist through three and a half minutes of frantic fiddling. Fried made it sound tuneful and easy, and the audience went crazy at the end from both awe and relief.

Boston Symphony Orchestra, Robert Spano (conductor)
Valdine Anderson (soprano); Miriam Fried (violin)

Saturday 17 August 2002; Tanglewood, Lenox, Mass.

Saariaho: Château de l’âme
Barber: Violin Concerto
Sibelius: Symphony No. 2, 21 August 2002

No comments: