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Martinů, Stravinsky, Thomas and Tchaikovsky: Peter Serkin (piano), Boston Symphony Orchestra, Ludovic Morlot (guest conductor), Symphony Hall, Boston, 17.10.2009 (KH)

Martinů: The Frescoes of Piero della Francesca
Stravinsky: Capriccio for piano and orchestra
Thomas: Helios Choros II (Sun God Dancers) (co-commission by the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the London Symphony Orchestra)
Tchaikovsky: Francesca da Rimini, “Fantasy after Dante” Opus 32

Given such an engagingly eclectic program, it came as a slight surprise to me to be able to say (as perhaps not all that many others in the audience might have said) that, yes, I was already familiar with the program: except of course for the première that was included. Lest it seem that I claim this as any special virtue, let's chalk it up to the fact that I am a composer, and so it is part of my musical environment constantly to seek out and listen to music well apart from the mainstream.

Although not at all a première in the larger sense, the Frescoes of Piero della Francesca were a first for the BSO this weekend – strange to say, considering Bohuslav Martinů’s ties with the orchestra. Charles Munch gave the first performance of three of Martinů’s six symphonies, for instance.  The composer said of the Frescoes, to his biographer  Miloš Šafránek: “The form is free, nothing in this composition is repeated; there is no development nor variations, the musical material being piled up to overflowing and yet it hangs together.” Not completely accurate in this instance, as there is indeed a recapitulation in the first movement – but it is nonetheless a reliable guide to the composer’s method, which generally eschews the traditional ‘architectural’ guideposts for a rich linear ‘narrative.’

The last two concerts where I heard Peter Serkin play, the music on  order was Stravinsky’s Movements for piano and orchestra, two premieres of music by Charles Wuorinen (his Fourth Piano Concerto and Second Piano Quintet), and Schoenberg’s Ode to Napoleon Buonaparte. Serkin has chops, and I like his programming – in comparison to which, the Stravinsky Capriccio came as a refreshing divertissement. The sang-froid of the Capriccio (especially the not-quite-cakewalk rhythms of the rondo) was the perfect foil to the magical musical mists of the Martinů; and how often can one say that the Stravinsky was the ‘lighter fare’ on a concert?

The score for Augusta Read Thomas’s Helios Choros II (Sun God Dancers) is inscribed “with admiration and gratitude to the London Symphony Orchestra, the Boston Symphony, and Martin Mellish.” The London Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Daniel Harding gave the world premiere performance on 14th December 2008, in Barbican Hall, London. The BSO here gave the American premiere performances, and the orchestra played with impressive commitment, and admirable assurance. When the composer emerged on stage to receive applause afterward, she gave every indication of pleasure with and gratitude towards the players and the conductor. The golden hue of her attire was a choice visual pun on the title of her piece. And this listener is of course pleased at any opportunity to hear a new work.

Tchaikovsky wrote Francesca da Rimini the year after his Third Symphony. He had found that each of his first two symphonies later demanded re-working; for the third, as he wrote to the Sofronov brothers, “[I] am taking it steadily, not spending all my time on it, and taking long walks.” It may be that this whole, gradual process ‘primed the pump’ for Tchaikovsky, for he composed Francesca in a blaze of three weeks, and it took him three more to orchestrate it. The score bears witness to hard-earned mastery, and breathes (to borrow a phrase I read recently, which is perfectly apt here) “nuanced lyricism under pressure.” The orchestra played their hearts out, as if something big was at stake. The applause was thunderous, and entirely deserved.

Karl Henning


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