Rejuvenating with Old Man River

Elena Urioste (screen grab)

“Episode 1” of the three-part series “New Beginnings,” marked the resumption of BSO livestreams after the holiday break. Regular guest and Tanglewood faculty member Stefan Asbury conducted this newest installment of the BSO’s season-long Music in Changing Times. Looking to works inspired by “rejuvenation in nature,” the orchestra performed pieces by Thomas Adès, Claude Debussy, Ralph Vaughan-Williams, Bedřich Smetana, and Elena Langer.

Continuing the format of its earlier tripartite series “American Promise,” the concert began with a short introduction; BSO violinist Jennie Shames described each of the works in turn, as well as elucidating the concert’s focus on “regeneration and awakening,” touching on the emergence of nature in Debussy’s Printemps or a post-war renewal in Vaughan-William’s The Lark Ascending.

Aptly enough, Adès’s Dawn came first. The 2020 work premiered during last summer’s BBC Proms. Subtitled “Chacony for orchestra at any distance,” it specifically required placement of players in the Symphony Hall balconies as well as on stage. The subtitle also subtly hinted at COVID-19’s agonizing artistic impacts.

Like many of his predecessors, Adès sought to replicate the tremendous power of a sunrise. The work begins softly, with a largely diatonic, sparse texture of strings and harp. Winds and brass steadily join this framework with exquisite, lyrical lines more reminiscent of Adès’s earlier chamber music (especially his string quartet Arcadiana) than his recent orchestral music. By choosing the anglicized version of chaconne in the subtitle, Adès hinted at Henry Purcell’s 17th-century Chacony in G minor, the first—and only significant—appearance of the word until Benjamin Britten’s chamber music. The chaconne framework, a constant repetition of the harmonic progression, gave a convincing inevitability to the rising sun. Piano and harp glissandi overlaid the climatic ending, with a powerful brass echo lasting several seconds after the end of the piece.

Screen grab from video feature

Debussy’s Printemps, completed as fulfillment of the Prix de Rome, followed immediately. Although the original manuscript is lost, the version performed by the BSO was reorchestrated—under Debussy’s supervision—from a reduction by his friend Henri Busser. Even though, as the BSO’s online notes explain, Debussy was adamant that the piece is “suggestive” rather than programmatic, the narrative of rejuvenation was clear in the journey from gentle beginning to triumphant end. The orchestra’s energetic reading gave full vent to the composer’s characteristic lush colors.

Before leading A Lark Ascending, Asbury engaged in a short, socially distanced onstage discussion with guest violinist Elena Urioste. Although this marks her BSO debut, Urioste detailed her formative years living in the Berkshires and attending concerts at Tanglewood. She also studied with former BSO concertmaster Joseph Silverstein, who coached Urioste through A Lark Ascending when she was student at the Curtis Institute of Music. And Asbury described A Lark Ascending as “a journey through and over parts of the English countryside.” Their shared love of the work was clear, as Urioste played with great effect. During the softer, intimate moments, her playing never failed to shine through Vaughan-Williams’s glimmering orchestral accompaniment.

Said the River, Sue Elliott and Michael Nock’s short video inspired by a Mary Oliver poem, preceded Smetana’s Moldau. Narrator Ken Cheeseman conveyed a short history of musical attempts to depict rivers. The presentation started with shots of rivers across the world with underscoring from Johann Strauss II’s The Blue Danube Waltz. The final ringing sounds of Vaughan-Williams’s majestic work would have been a more fitting—and less grating—accompaniment. Then, Cheeseman mentioned water-based works by composers ranging from Handel and Offenbach to Florence Price and Duke Ellington. Cheeseman closed with a connection between Heraclitus’s maxim that “no one ever steps in the same river twice” and the variety of ways composers have approached portraying rivers.

Smetana’s warhorse rang forth with suitable drama and engagement. The subdued beginning served to intensify the timpani and brass entrance and Asbury elicited stirring rubatos in the joyful peasant dance. But programmatically, the form of the Moldau felt too similar to the pieces by Adès and Debussy—all relied on the same pattern of growth from gentle opening to triumphant close. The third such iteration became exhausting.

Pianists Leslie Amper and Randall Hodgkinson front distanced brass (screen grab)

Boston Symphony Chamber Players closed with Elena Langer’s Five Reflections on Water (a 2019 BSO commission) under Jorge Soto. The players dispatched many complicated techniques with ease.  Rather than following the pattern of Smetana’s programmatic journey of the Moldau from its source to endpoint in the Elbe, Five Reflections connects with a consequential moment in Langer’s life: a trip through Europe after the successful completion of cancer treatment. Nevertheless, at various points in five movements, one could imagine calm lakes, raindrops, and oceanic depths.

The excellent performances of the BSO, Chamber Players, and Urioste were matched by exceptional camerawork; the cameras rarely missed an important solo and struck a pleasing balance between close-up and long shots. Recording engineer Nick Squire’s sound quality—surely made more difficult with brass, harps, and percussion in the balcony—matched the high standards of earlier streamed performances. And, the extensive online essays by a variety of authors gave useful and pertinent information.

Nevertheless, the theme of “New Beginnings,” especially in comparison to “American Promise,” left me with some confusion. The broader subject of “rejuvenation in the natural world” was clear enough in each piece, but Shames’s intriguing proposition that the series seeks to highlight composers “renewing their own musical language or arriving at a new phase of artistic expression, or boldly forging a new style as they embrace life in a country far from their homeland,” hardly resonated in the concert, nor did any of the works presented seem to embody any of her criteria. Furthermore, Said the River dodged the broader theme of rejuvenation (after all, the Moldau was the only to explicitly mention a river), so I was bewildered by such careful attention to this fluvial subject. It’s a shame, especially as “rejuvenation in the natural world” poignantly reflects the desire for open spaces during the pandemic, particularly for residents of cities like Boston. Hopefully the next two episodes will better clarify the intent behind “New Beginnings.”

The concert streams HERE until February 13th to BSO subscribers or all for a donation of any amount.

Gareth Cordery, a first-year Ph.D. student in Historical Musicology at Columbia University under Walter Frisch, majored in Music and History Middlebury College. He has performed piano concertos with symphonies across the United States, and lives in New York City.