Thursday, December 04, 2003  
 Clubs TonightHot TixBand GuideMP3sBest Music PollSki GuideThe Best '03 
 Clubs By Night | Club Directory | Bands in Town | Concerts: Classical - Pop | Hot Links | Review Archive |  
Editors' Picks
New This Week
News and Features

Food & Drink


Stuff at Night
The Providence Phoenix
The Portland Phoenix
FNX Radio Network

  E-Mail This Article to a Friend

Potholes to paradise
Ben Zander’s Mahler journey continues; Emmanuel Krivine, Hans Graf, and Colin Davis make return visits to the BSO

Perhaps the most painful duty a critic faces is the necessity of writing a negative review of admired performers. No one is perfect — even great artists can fall below their usual high standard. Mitsuko Shirai singing Gustav Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder ("Songs on the Death of Children") with Benjamin Zander and the Boston Philharmonic was the event of this BPO season devoted to Mahler that I was most eager to hear. Zander is esteemed for his penetrating Mahler (which started with his 1974 performance of Kindertotenlieder with Jane Struss and the Boston Civic Symphony). And mezzo-soprano Shirai — born in Japan but living mostly in Germany — may be the greatest singer of German lieder alive. You can see on her expressive face a living reflection of the expressive phrasing you can hear on her recordings.

So what was I to think when in one of the most moving and powerful of all song cycles — Mahler’s setting of five of the more than 400 poems Friedrich Rückert wrote about the two children he lost — Shirai seemed to be singing with almost no expression, her head either buried in her score or glancing furtively at Zander? She was in generally good voice, and in the high last bars of the final song, where the key changes from D minor to D major, she sounded close to sublime. After intermission, she returned to sing one of Mahler’s bitterest songs about childhood — "Das irdische Leben" ("The Earthly Life"), his setting of a poem from that famous German folk collection, Des Knaben Wunderhorn ("The Boy’s Magic Horn"). Suddenly, except for some breathy low notes, Shirai was fully present, as both a child begging for bread and its mother urging him to wait, finally at the cost of his life. It was a hair-raising performance — but why didn’t this happen in the earlier and greater work?

Zander programmed "Das irdische Leben" as a counterbalance to "Das himmlische Leben" ("The Heavenly Life"), the Wunderhorn song that forms the last movement of Mahler’s Symphony No. 4, which concluded the program. At the BPO’s Thursday-night "Discovery Series" concerts, Zander delivers his popular "pre-concert" talks not before but during the concert, with the orchestra providing musical examples. This time, his talking between pieces added a lengthier interruption between the "Earth" song and the "Heaven" song, so the point got lost. Worse, his concentration seemed off — even in his talk. He loves to explain things and is very good at it. But when he compared the opening melody of the second Kindertotenlieder song with that of "the Adagietto," he never mentioned that the Adagietto is the short slow movement in Mahler’s Fifth Symphony.

He was surely thrown by Shirai’s strange lapse. The conductor whose Mahler is so remarkable for its flexibility, continuity, and pointed phrasing gave us instead a Mahler symphony that sounded square, willful, less than perfectly coordinated, and interminable. Tempos for each movement seemed unvaried, and too slow. Zander seemed to be making a series of isolated points instead of allowing each moment to be part of an inevitable ongoing process. Soprano Heidi Grant Murphy sat heroically in silence for three long movements until finally her small, sweet, twitter and animated hands teased listeners into believing that Heaven is an enchanting place where we will be served the best food ("St. Martha must be the cook!").

Zander has led both Kindertotenlieder and the Fourth Symphony before in memorable performances. What went wrong?

There’s some explanation. Shirai, who was suffering from a cold, had been stuck in a basement dressing room in Memorial Hall with a murderous air-conditioning system. When she arrived on stage, it seems she could hardly hear either the orchestra or herself. She fixed her eyes on the score or on Zander in order not to lose her place. When flowers were presented to her, she handed them to the concertmaster.

On Sunday afternoon, I returned to hear the final performance, and what a difference! This time Shirai sang Kindertotenlieder without a score, and from inside the music. She expressed the nuances of tragedy: sorrow, disbelief, self-pity, self-delusion, false hope, guilt. Important words like "Unglück" ("disaster") she made particularly pointed, and her voice, though still diminished from that cold, now had a spectrum of color, from very dark, almost growled, to ecstatically sunlit in the last bars, the place to which the entire cycle seemed to be moving, where she seemed to have convinced herself that the dead children were finally resting in peace, "as in their Mother’s house."

She responded eloquently to the wonderful players — oboist Peggy Pearson, cor anglais player Ronald Kaye, clarinettist Thomas Hill, French horn player Kevin Owen, harpist Martha Moor, concertmaster Wei-Pin Kuo, cellist Rafael Popper-Keizer — and in turn gave them something to respond to. Once again, she handed her flowers to the concertmaster, even as the entire orchestra applauded her.

The symphony came to life too. This time, it was not a series of mechanical effects but a continuum of actions and counteractions, each moment a specific response to what came before. Theodor Adorno wrote that Mahler turned "cliché into event." This time every phrase became an event. Zander had picked up the tempos a little, but more important, each movement now had its own color. The cellos made the delightful Viennese tune in the first movement sound like Haydn. The Adagio had less of the profound searching quality of Zander’s very first Mahler Fourth, but it was more songlike. In the last movement, you could hear the opening sleigh bells transformed into the tingling bustle of Paradise. Two concerts, three days apart, identical personnel — it was an object lesson in the perils and rewards of live performance.

AFTER ITS OVERWHELMING Pelléas et Mélisande last month, the Boston Symphony Orchestra seemed to settle into something more routine. It wasn’t anyone’s fault that a shoulder problem forced Sir Charles Mackerras to cancel his eagerly awaited Berlioz concerts, and it was fortunate that a replacement who could conduct the same program was available at short notice. The Russian-Polish conductor Emmanuel Krivine has led the BSO on two previous occasions, and he’s not an uninteresting musician. I was quite bewitched by his tender opening for the Symphonie fantastique and the sense of orchestral balance that clarified every instrumental detail. But by the second movement, the ball where the hero sees his beloved, Krivine’s choppy, bouncy strokes and rubbery baton seemed to lose the central pulse. It was all lively, but was anything at stake? The whipped-up brass in the last movement whipped up the audience, too, but nothing seemed to add up.

Harold in Italy is another autobiographical piece, this one based on Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, an epic of soul searching and weltschmerz. The gorgeous viola solo, the voice of Childe Harold, was written for Paganini, who commissioned the piece but never played it — probably because it was less demanding technically than psychologically. Principal violist Steven Ansell rose to the technical demands, but his smiles of satisfaction suggested that he was more interested in producing a beautiful tone than in revealing Harold’s — and Berlioz’s — feelings of desperate longing.

The following week, Hans Graf, music director of the Houston Symphony, was back in a program of Russian music that proved he’s more than just a good Mozart conductor. This was an enjoyable if unmemorable concert of infrequently performed pieces. Tchaikovsky’s Shakespeare-inspired symphonic fantasia The Tempest is a characterful tone poem that lacks the inspired melodies and structural intricacy of the more justly famous Romeo and Juliet Fantasy-Overture but is still worth hearing (Graf had led the only other BSO performance). Shostakovich’s First Cello Concerto brought us the phenomenally gifted young German cellist Claudio Bohórquez (his parents are from Peru and Uruguay), who played spectacularly but except for the central cadenza didn’t seem quite inside this oddly unpleasant piece written for Mstislav Rostropovich. The audience called him back for an encore — a more satisfying solo Bach movement. After intermission came Tchaikovsky’s most appealing symphony, No. 2, the Little Russian, one of the very few pieces Stravinsky ever conducted that he hadn’t composed. Graf didn’t do anything wrong, but even after the live BSO performance, it’s Stravinsky’s more delicately nuanced, more rhythmically authoritative and articulate performance (with the LA Philharmonic!) that I keep hearing in my head.

Things picked up considerably this past week, with the return of Colin Davis — Sir Colin Davis — after an absence of 19 years. The former principal guest conductor of the BSO was so well liked here, he was invited to become music director — twice. He led two pieces by composers often associated with English conductors: Elgar and Haydn (few conductors have surpassed Sir Thomas Beecham in capturing both the wit and the profundity of "Papa" Haydn).

Sir Colin chose a relatively early Haydn symphony, No. 72 in D (the advanced numbering appears to derive from an early-20th-century misdating), a piece the BSO had never performed before. It begins as a "hunting" symphony, with exhilarating, fluttering horn calls from four horns — James Somerville, Daniel Katzen, Jay Wadenpfuhl, and Jonathan Menkis — playing in antiphonal pairs and leading the chase. The four brief movements, without much development, have more the feel of a divertimento than a full-fledged symphony. The most charming movement is probably the last: a series of lively variations based on a theme with a stealthy tread, the best of which is an extended solo for double bass (Edwin Barker at his best).

Elgar’s big Second Symphony (1911) has a little too much nobility and what Yeats called "heroic melancholy" (according to Michael Steinberg’s impassioned program note) for my taste. He’s been called "the English Mahler," though he seems more like an English Bruckner, more monolithic than mercurial. The most urgent readings of the score are Elgar’s own (he recorded it twice, in 1924 and 1927; both are on EMI’s historic Elgar Edition). Davis led us through the piece with intense conviction, and the orchestra played its collective heart out.

Issue Date: November 28 - December 4, 2003
Back to the Music table of contents
  E-Mail This Article to a Friend

about the phoenix |  find the phoenix |  advertising info |  privacy policy |  the masthead |  feedback |  work for us

 © 2000 - 2003 Phoenix Media Communications Group