Contrasts and Dreamscapes

by Michael Johnson Michael Johnson is a music writer and critic with special interest in piano. He spent nine years on the board of the London International Piano Competition and has written extensively on music for leading publications, including the International New York Times, Clavier Companion, The Washington Times, American Spectator and the website Facts & Arts. He spent four years in Moscow as a correspondent and also worked as a journalist in Paris, London and New York. 11.04.2015

Music Director Andris Nelsons’s Thursday [April 9, 2014] BSO program, comprising a wide range of musical styles and eras, induced an enthusiastic reception in the nearly full house. The program will be repeated tonight (Friday), Saturday and next Tuesday.

The best-received of the three works was Richard Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben (A Heroic Life), Op. 40, a six-part uninterrupted tone poem that gave the BSO an opportunity to bring its best colors and textures to a major work. The challenge was met under Nelsons’s conducting—athletic, wiry, but always in the service of the music, not the gallery.

An expanded orchestra attacked the stormy and violent passages, and treated the glorious crescendos as confidently as the quiet lyricism. Strauss walks through his hero’s life, opening with a sketch of the subject, then moving to his adversaries (He had in mind some of the Berlin critics and hoped they recognized themselves), then his companions. Violinist Malcolm Lowe interpreted the intimate portrait of Strauss’s muse, his wife Pauline, inspired by instructions in the score to render her flippant, tender, gay, emotional, nagging and loving, among other aspects.

Without pause, the tone poem goes on to portray the hero’s Battlefield, Works of Peace, concluding with his Escape from the World and Fulfillment. At the end, the breathtaking descent into pianissimo hung in the air for a few seconds before the audience erupted in a standing ovation, with whistles and shouts and a few stomps. Nelsons took the applause and graciously called on a dozen soloists to stand and bow, one by one.

Richard Goode, a much-admired Mozartean, delivered an emotional version of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 27 in B-flat Major (K. 595) retaining Mozart’s cadenzas in the first and third movements. Goode’s subtle rubatos and controlled dynamics tugged at the clean lines and shifting moods, brouging meaning to passages that are often rendered hurriedly and far less memorably. The Allegro final movement displays Mozart’s desire to please audiences rather than simply challenge them, and Goode grasped the intent. His lilting feather touch on the Steinway seemed perfectly in sync with the vivacious music. Nelsons and Goode clearly had a meeting of the minds. Nelson was equally comfortable with the concerto, conducting from memory and literally dancing on the podium. The work is generally accepted as Mozart’s last piano concerto and was performed once with himself at the piano, early in 1791. It was his last public performance; he died in December of that year at age 35.

Andris Nelsons and Richard Googe, Dominick Reuter photo

Gunther Schuller’s Dreamscape, a three-movement work premiered by the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra in 2012, got its first performance by the BSO, complete with an expanded orchestra crowded onto the Symphony Hall stage. Among the special instrumentation were four piccolos, four bassoons, including a contrabassoon that got one solo honk for laughs, and six percussionists who kept busy with sleigh bells, tom toms, four Chinese gongs, ratchet, glockenspiel, bell tree and a lion’s roar, among other things. The result was a witty opening movement (Scherzo Umoristico e Curioso), followed by a calming and dark second movement, in which the BSO’s augmented strings ooze in tandem with reeds and two harps. It ended with a slowly evolving third, all completed in 11 minutes. Chuckles rippled through the audience as Schuller’s musical jokes unfurled, including a quote from Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker. Nelsons evidently enjoyed this BSO premiere as well, virtually enveloping the large orchestra with his long arms as he shaped the changing moods.

Dreamscape was commissioned by the Tanglewood Music Center for the 75th anniversary of Tanglewood. The prolific Schuller, now approaching 90, is modest about his compositional technique. As he wrote in his program note, “… the entire work—yes, the entire work—was presented to me in a dream, not just little bits of it but ranging from its overall form and conception to an amazing amount of specific detail.”

Looking frail and rising with a cane, Schuller took his bows from the  audience. I spoke to him at intermission and learned that he is still composing and is proud to have completed 20 works in the past two years.

Schuller bows following his “Dreamscape, Dominick Reuter photo.

Schuller’s experience with the subconscious in repose was remarkable but not unique. Stravinsky said the theme of The Soldier’s Tale came to him in a dream, as did the concept for the death dance in Rite of Spring. Lesser composers like to blog of their creative “lucid music” dreams, which sometimes send them hurtling to the piano at 3 a.m. to capture a few bars. It is rare, however, for a complete composition to emerge from a single dream. Schuller acknowledges that he had to scribble notes for about ten minutes before all faded away.

In an exclusive interview for the Intelligencer, Schuller said late Friday afternoon that he found Nelsons interpretation of Dreamscape “eighty percent of what I wrote.” The performance, he added, was “extraordinary but not fully realized.” With each subsequent performance, he said, he expects it further to approach his expectations.

He praised Nelsons and the orchestra for mastering the “unbelievably complex score” with the limited rehearsal time orchestras have today. It’s not surprising that they “cannot get it all,” he added.

Discussing the dream phenomenon, he said he was shown in his dream how to use specific rhythmic and harmonic structures and was told to “play musical jokes.” He added, “Do you know how hard it is to write musical jokes so that people will understand what you’re joking about?” He said he has had other musical dreams that gave him small bits but this was the grandest experience of his long life.

The BSO will take this same program to Carnegie Hall on April 15th, including Dreamscape. Schuller says he will be there if his health permits.

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