Ives, Foss, Carter, Gershwin:
Upshaw, Soprano, Jean-Yves Thibaudet,
Piano, Boston Symphony Orchestra, James Levine, Music
Director and Conductor, Carnegie Hall, New York City,
Ives: Three Places in New England (1912-29)
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).
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.
inspired by Don Quixote, and was notable for its surging,
declamatory gestures, and followed by the almost humorous
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
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
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.