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Seen and Heard International Concert Review


Ives, Foss, Carter, Gershwin: Dawn Upshaw, Soprano, Jean-Yves Thibaudet, Piano, Boston Symphony Orchestra, James Levine, Music Director and Conductor, Carnegie Hall, New York City, 10.10.2005 (BH)



Ives: Three Places in New England (1912-29)
Foss: Time Cycle: Four Songs for Soprano and Orchestra (1960)
Carter: Three Illusions (2004; New York Premiere)
Gershwin: Piano Concerto in F Major (1925)


In an evening that was about as close to a marvel as one could ask for, James Levine and the Boston Symphony Orchestra presented an all-American slate of 20th and 21st-century music to a wildly enthusiastic, sold-out Carnegie Hall audience.  Yes, that is correct: sold-out to hear Ives, Foss, Carter and Gershwin (although the latter hardly carries the same “quake factor” as the other three).

Ives’ Three Places in New England is one of his finest orchestral spectaculars, combining haunting, misty passages with explosively rough edges, intertwined with little hymn tunes that appear like winsome glue.  As soon as the lights went down, the BSO’s arresting strings opened the first part, The “St. Gaudens” in Boston Common, and set the tone for the next twenty minutes, which a friend would later characterize as the finest performance he had ever heard.  The jarringly original second movement, Putnam’s Camp, Redding, Connecticut, has huge blocks of sound that tear off in all directions.  Gigantic structures rise up, only to be sawed in half and split into two, three, four different tempi all colliding in joyous abandon, before The Housatonic at Stockbridge ends the set on a more intimate note.  In the right hands, this is a tour de force for an orchestra, and on this occasion, those hands were Levine’s.

Lukas Foss’ Time Cycle was championed by Leonard Bernstein, whose advocacy is documented with an excellent recording with Adele Addison.  But one could not have argued with Dawn Upshaw’s formidable reading, made even more memorable by the orchestra’s spectacular support.  Upshaw had no problems with Foss’ dramatic octave-plus leaps, managing them with agility coupled with her typically graceful, creamy sound.  Upshaw is highly regarded for her commitment to contemporary music, and can be the best kind of gentle, yet completely uncompromising guide to convince skeptics.  That happened here.  The orchestral parts are filled with the incessant clucking, ticking, and mechanical noises of clocks, with strongly written parts for percussion, piano and xylophone.  To a backdrop of loud applause, the composer walked onstage to join hands with Levine and Upshaw, all to be praised for presenting this work in the best possible light.

For just nine minutes of music, Elliott Carter’s Three Illusions carries much weight than illusion, and was arguably the hit of the evening.  (Yes, you read that right.)   In three short sections that can be played separately or as a set, Carter uses a huge orchestra with a fleetness that is expert.  Micomicón was inspired by Don Quixote, and was notable for its surging, declamatory gestures, and followed by the almost humorous Fons Juventatis, based on the Roman myth of the Fountain of Youth.  The final movement, More’s Utopia, is drawn from Thomas More’s satire, with Carter writing in a bit sterner mode.  If the three parts have anything in common other than their brevity, it is their elegantly abstract, transparent use of a huge ensemble – almost like Debussy or Webern.  Carter’s hand at this point is sure but spare, in marked contrast to the ruggedness of earlier scores such as his Holiday Overture or the Variations for Orchestra.  Not to get overly metaphysical, but it’s as if at 96, he has been touched with some kind of effortless grace.

So it is with great pleasure that I report that the audience was vocal and enthusiastic beyond what anyone might imagine Carter receiving even say, ten years ago.  Perhaps we are realizing the presence of a very special compositional mind, and one that most likely won’t be around in another fifty years.  (Although you never know; he’s looking very swell.)  The response to the piece was so overwhelming that Levine turned and after a brief announcement, did the second movement again.  Fons Juventatis almost lightheartedly tosses the musical line from instrument to instrument, and concludes with an almost offhanded trombone note, like a sentence that oddly ends with a comma.  As the 96-year-old composer walked to the stage, the cheering only grew louder as he turned, waving his cane in appreciation.

Levine’s expertly assembled survey of American masters concluded with a masterfully dashing Piano Concerto in F by George Gershwin, played with infallible instincts by Jean-Yves Thibaudet.  Not every classical musician has the temperament for the jazz elements in this work, but Thibaudet raked through it with the kind of humor and suavity that surely would have had the composer beaming.  The nocturnal, reflective second movement was notable for a star turn by the orchestra’s principal trumpet, Charles Schlueter, and dozens of other startlingly good moments from this turn-on-a-dime ensemble.  From the gleeful Charleston flavors of the first movement to the fragmented toccata-like episodes of the brilliant finale, Thibaudet played this as if it were written for him, while the orchestra zipped through Gershwin’s elegant high jinks with virtuosic playing that must have floored many in the audience.

As if all this weren’t enough, Levine’s savvy menu was a blizzard of crisscrossing references, all vying with each other for “most interesting factoid of the day.”  In an excellent pre-concert talk by Ara Guzelimian, he noted that the Gershwin was one of many distinguished BSO premieres, that Lukas Foss used to be the BSO’s pianist in the 1940s, and that Charles Ives used to take the young Elliott Carter to Carnegie Hall concerts, where apparently the latter first heard The Rite of Spring.  The renaissance of the BSO is news I love reporting, and Boston audiences most likely have some legendary evenings in store during the coming years. 



Bruce Hodges




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