The Boston Phoenix
January 27 - February 3, 2000

[Music Reviews]

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Century 21

Janus 21, Robert Spano, Ben Zander, and Yo-Yo Ma

by Lloyd Schwartz

My first concert of the new century was provided by the Janus 21 Chamber Ensemble. Titled "Time and Eternity," it looked appropriately both forward and back, beginning with a pre-concert talk by Harvard-Smithsonian astrophysicist Dr. Rudy Schild, who assured us that according to the latest scientific research, the universe is never going to end.

The four items on the program debated that assertion. Ralph Vaughan Williams's Four Hymns -- for tenor (Michael Calmès, viola (David Hobbie), and piano (Kathryn Rosenbach), with texts by Jeremy Taylor, Isaac Watts, Richard Crashaw ("Come Love, come Lord" -- the most seductively set), and Robert Bridges -- argued in favor of a spiritual eternity. On the other hand, Ernest Chausson's luscious Chanson perpétuelle -- for mezzo-soprano (Jane Struss) and piano quintet (violinists Jeffrey Howard and Andrea Vercoe and cellist Benjamin Peterson joining Rosenbach and Hobbie) -- is the lament of a woman about to throw herself into a "pond" because her lover has left her (it was written in 1898, the year before Chausson died, at 44, in a bicycle accident).

There was also the welcome return of Richard St. Clair's cycle The Lamentations of Shinran, which was written for Struss and Calmès in 1998 -- 16 self-tormented verses in medieval Japanese taken from poems by the 12th-century Buddhist teacher of enlightenment Shinran Shonin, the founder of Japan's largest Buddhist sect. This performance, with Struss sounding especially firm and radiant and the same superb string quartet as in the Chausson, confirmed my good first impression at the premiere a year and a half ago. St. Clair has created a fascinating sound world, both charged and atmospheric. Every cliché of Eastern music has been either avoided or utterly transformed. His is a stirring and original voice, and he couldn't ask for more committed performers.

The concert ended with an eloquent performance of Messiaen's famous Quatuor pour la fin du temps ("Quartet for the End of Time"), which he composed while he was in a prison camp in 1941. Clarinettist Thomas Hill, in sumptuous form for the solo third movement, "Abyss of birds," was joined by Rosenbach on the piano again, with Kevin Crudder on cello and the impassioned young violinist Andrew Kohji Taylor. They made time stop.

Robert Spano The BSO's first concert of 2000 marked the eagerly awaited return of former BSO assistant conductor Robert Spano, who is now director of the Brooklyn Philharmonic and rapidly becoming one of the world's most popular younger conductors. The program was not one especially designed to exhibit the unique qualities of any conductor. Ravel's Mother Goose almost plays itself if the players are good enough (by no means all of them were), and it transcends sugariness only when it's served with a French accent -- which Spano didn't provide.

Spano's programs always include a new American piece, and this time it was the premiere of Bright Sheng's Red Silk Dance, with a bravura part for pianist Emanuel Ax. More rhythmic than melodic invention (a theme in perfect fourths) made it lively enough without its being memorable. You heard all sorts of familiar echoes (Bartók, Stravinsky, one reviewer even heard Brahms, plus a variety of Asian themes from all along the Silk Road), and it was structurally direct (fast-then-faster/slow/fast). The Globe praised it as a happy new addition to the lost genre of light classical music. But I don't think it's as good as The Grand Canyon Suite or El Salón México.

The concert was preceded by a bizarre Q&A with the composer, during which Sheng's interlocutor asked him to explain his title -- just after he already had, at considerable length.

Ax returned for a brilliant but detached run-through of Liszt's single-movement Second Piano Concerto. There seemed no reason to have it on the program except to give the celebrity soloist something else to do. Spano's accompaniment was more eloquent than the pianism, and Martha Babcock's gorgeous cello solo walked away with the honors.

The program closed late (after endless piano movings) with La mer, and this finally showed what Spano could do. From the insinuating opening, Debussy's masterpiece emerged as unsentimental, modern, even brutal, with Spano using the crudities of the BSO brass section as a deliberate contrast to the soughings of the strings and the flutterings of the winds. Real pianissimos contrasted with brash fortissimos -- often in multi-layered simultaneity. The climactic Dialogue of the Wind and the Sea predicted the ferocity of the dance of human sacrifice from Stravinsky's Sacre du printemps. Like the Ravel, not very French, but here something far more unsettling.

I've never loved Mahler's Eighth Symphony. The composer's most grandiose -- and in his lifetime most successful -- work has always seemed to me more an act of will than of inspiration, an effortful attempt to compose a masterpiece. In my year-end wrap-up for 1999, I called last year's ambitious performance by Benjamin Zander and the Boston Philharmonic (the second Boston performance in 20 years) "more of an achievement than a revelation." I thought if Zander couldn't make this monsterpiece work for me, then no one could. Last week, though, in preparation for a visit to Carnegie Hall, they performed it again in Boston, and this time I got the message. For the first time in my experience of the Mahler Eighth, it actually moved me.

What did it for me, I think, was the greater clarity of the orchestra (though some ensemble playing was ragged) and Zander's more varied dynamics (eerie -- or deranged -- chamber-music pianissimos and ear-shattering triple fortissimos) and more flexible, more spacious pacing, with sudden turn-on-a-dime emotional transitions full of surprises. So instead of the first movement's being simply a bloated prayer to the "Creator Spirit," Zander expanded more on Mahler's sense of human mortality and failure, the fragile soul that needs all the spiritual support it can get. I still didn't especially like the music as I was hearing it, but listening to what later grew out of this movement and was responding to it, I found myself better understanding Mahler's turmoil -- his desperate need to have his creative spirit renewed.

In the second movement, Mahler's setting of the last scene of Goethe's Faust, the absent hero (eight soloists and massive choruses are praying for him but he never appears) seemed palpably present as the center of all this concern in a way I've never felt before. It was like Mahler's wish fulfillment, his dream of acceptance, of receiving universal love and immortality. And in fact, Mahler was inspired to go on from here to two of his greatest works, the Ninth Symphony and Das Lied von der Erde ("The Song of the Earth").

Yeats wrote that "we make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry." I've always thought that this so-called Symphony of a Thousand consisted mainly of rhetoric. But this time -- for the first time -- I could feel Mahler's urgent struggle with himself. It's still not my favorite Mahler, but I'll never think of it in the same way again.

Among the special heroes of this performance, besides Zander himself, were James David Christie on organ (that mighty fortress), Martha Moor (her ecstatic harp glissandos welcoming us to Heaven), all the horns and brasses, the two wonderful youth choruses from New Haven, soprano Ellen Chickering (from C to shining high C), soprano Indra Thomas (stepping in only two days earlier to deliver a glowing performance), and tenor Adam Klein (significantly improved over last year). And in the overwhelming last moments, all the participants outdid themselves.

Zander has been ubiquitous of late: in a Sunday Times feature (about his being "Boston's latest cult figure"), in an interview on Fresh Air, in a blowsy profile on 60 Minutes (Morley Safer called him "classical music's Energizer bunny"). His Mahler Ninth CD, Zander's first recording on a major label (Telarc), with a major orchestra (the Philharmonia), has received a Grammy nomination. It was good to be reminded that it's not the cult of personality, the excesses and eccentricities, that make him a notable figure but his history of risk taking and, yes, revelatory performances -- like this extraordinary Mahler Eighth.

Yo-Yo Ma No millennium would be complete without Yo-Yo Ma, and he was back at Symphony Hall, in the BankBoston Celebrity Series, to warm the hearts of the audience on the coldest night of the new century. His partner was British pianist Kathryn Stott, a frequent collaborator. They're an odd couple. For most of the evening there was no chemistry between them -- they just didn't connect. Ma announced that it had taken him as long to fly in from Detroit as it had taken Stott to come from England. Maybe they hadn't enough rehearsal time together. In the opening Suite italienne (Stravinsky's transcription of music from Pulcinella for cellist Gregor Piatigorsky), the pair were so far apart in timbre and expression, they didn't even seem to be playing in unison. Ma's tone seemed unfocused and nasal, though in the languorous "Serenata" movement the cello was velvety and seductive. The irresistible tunes (mostly Pergolesi's) lacked Stravinsky's teasing edge.

The next item was called "New Goldberg Variations." "There's nothing wrong with the old Goldberg Variations," Ma told us. These pieces were commissioned from a half-dozen composers by Judy and Robert Goldberg to celebrate their silver anniversary (Robert Levin played the original Bach at their wedding), with each set of variations to be based on the theme that Bach used. Sadly, the piece became a memorial for Robert Goldberg, who died of cancer in 1994. Ma and Stott chose to play four of the six commissions: a thoughtfully prickly set by Peter Lieberson (pounding "musique mécanique" alternating with serene lyricism), a charming comic set by Peter Schickele (in which the players shout the letters with musical implications ("G," "B") instead of playing them, and rather mild and mournful sets by John Corigliano and Richard Danielpour. Perhaps time constraints forced the omission of the one by Christopher Rouse (announced in the press release), which would surely have struck a less polite chord.

The concluding Rachmaninov G-minor Sonata found both Ma and Stott in more luxurious voice. The "Scherzando" second movement was the gem, with its alternating ghostly gallop and soaring cello song. A steamy and melancholy Astor Piazzolla tango, Soledad, and the jazziest of the Gershwin Preludes were the felicitous encores, showing what this duo can do once they really start to cook.

Congratulations and thanks to WHRB for starting the new century with the live Metropolitan Opera broadcast on New Year's Day of John Harbison's The Great Gatsby (which sounded like a better opera without the encumberment of the frustratingly inept stage direction) -- and for its nine-day Bach "orgy," a chronological and historical survey of virtually Bach's complete works. What a joy to turn on the radio at almost any hour of the day or night and hear this sublime outpouring.
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