Berliners and Petrenko Exceed Lofty Expectations

Noah Bendix-Balgley (Stephan Rabold photo)

Palpable anticipation filled the Symphony Hall air Sunday evening as Kirill Petrenko and the Berlin Philharmonic, on tour in the United States, prepared to play in Boston on behalf of the Celebrity Series. Judging from the length and intensity of the ovations from the near-capacity audience, Boston’ s expectations of this superlative ensemble were more than fulfilled. More than just achieving the public success, the event led us to new horizons and deepening insights.

It was challenging experience. Avoiding standard repertoire, eschewing the more familiar touring fare of Brahms and Bruckner and Mahler, Petrenko chose three lesser-known works that paid homage, each in its own way to the orchestra’ s host country, our own imperfect United States. The program comprised a witty, epigrammatic curtain opener Unstuck by the young American composer Andrew Norman (b. 1979), a polished reading of an early Mozart violin concerto, the K207 in B-flat Major, with American-born soloist/concertmaster Noah Bendix-Balgley [see my interview HERE]; and, post-intermission, a questioning, uncomfortable near-masterpiece from post-World-War II by the Viennese-raised, naturalized American, Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957), better known to most of us as a father of American sound-film music [editor’s note: along with emigres Franz Waxman, Max Steiner, Frederick Hollander, Hanns Eisler, and Dimitri Tiomkin].

The Berliner is a mighty collective enterprise, and when they make a big, loud tutti sound the effect on the listener is uniquely intense. But it is also full of outstanding individuals and sections (Oh, those horns!). My companion was enthused by the appearance, in the flesh, of some superstar woodwind soloists whose faces and characteristic sounds are now familiar via the orchestra’ s digital streaming channel. Unstuck, witty, hip, and gleefully neurotic, made therefore for a very effective curtain raiser. Bits and pieces of everything float by, providing plenty of places for the various instrumental choirs to shine. And we heard some terrific percussion playing. The final, cello-centered measures were, as they say, a hoot, as principal cellist Ludwig Quandt (another familiar presence from those streaming concerts) skidded up his A string to the utmost heights, producing spooky pitches even as his left hand went north of his fingerboard.

Things became more normal as the touring orchestra on show progressed to the Mozart concerto. In the best of all possible worlds, a topnotch German orchestra performed a piece by a core-repertoire Germanic composer. The K. 207 is a charmer, composed in Salzburg by the 17-year-old prodigy. First concertmaster Noah Bendix-Balgley performed with sweet tone, impeccable intonation, and a fine, lyrical sense of line. He also composed the well-conceived and effective cadenzas. The orchestra entered fully into it, with many smiles and nods passing around the various desks. Everyone seemed to catch fire in the vigorous finale as Balgley, relaxing a bit, also got fully into the swing of things. In this repertoire, this writer prefers the leaner, lighter sound of period instruments, and perhaps even this modern instrument ensemble could have lightened up just a tad. These excellent players could have done it all without a conductor, but Petrenko beat time affably. Much of the audience gave this performance a standing ovation, something unusual at half-time.

Unusual, too, was Bendix-Balgley’s choice of encore material: two little Yiddish-Klezmer tunes, performed with style, grace and humor. Delightful they were, but something more than that, as we are all aware of this magnificent institution’ s complicated history. Klezmer tunes provided the most moving moment of the first half, providing transition to what followed after intermission.

The Berliners’ major offering, Korngold’ s 1947-1952 Symphony in F-sharp Major, failed at its initial, under-rehearsed radio debut in postwar Vienna. We are told that the conductor of that premiere did not hold the composer in high esteem. And lo, here in Boston, eyebrows rose in certain quarters as it was learned that Petrenko would feature it as the major work in his Boston debut with the Berliners.

Petrenko considers the symphony to be a masterpiece, and he clearly believes in it deeply. His choice also dovetails with his recent programming emphasis on composers, many of them Jewish, who, to smaller or larger extent fell victim to the Nazis, and with his consideration of identity in general. The conductor made the right call. This symphony, contradictions and all, rises to significance and importance.

Korngold represents the “lost generation” master par excellence. Celebrated as a young prodigy, exiled as Germany and Austria embraced Naziism, re-invented as a genius of illustrative film music, he subsequently failed to reclaim his pre-Hitler niche, rejected by both American and Austrian musical elites after the war.

With his late-Romantic musical language, Korngold was hardly the only composer in music history to create “anachronistic” music. The 13th-century troubadour, Guiraut Riquier, one of the last of his line, lamented that he was born too late. And the greatest one of them all, J.S. Bach, remained a crusty contrapuntist as the galant style gained ground in Europe. Closer to our own time, a number of 20th-century composers created largely outside the tenets of modernism: Rachmaninoff, Ernest Bloch, post-Berlin Kurt Weill, even our own Randall Thompson, also went their own ways, apart from the modernist mainstream. Korngold fell from grace more painfully, and I wonder if his relatively early death was not related to the severity of his disappointments.

Although the symphony quotes, so I am told, from some of Korngold’ s film scores, it is not movie music, but rather a four-movement work in the Viennese mold: an opening movement, questioning and challenging, with a “modernist” slant; a scherzo and trio; an elegiac slow movement, arguably its emotional center; and a concluding, upbeat finale mixing new material with motivic and thematic elements from earlier on.

Much of this writing is pictorial in an almost-cinematic sense. In the opening bars of the first movement, the plaintive clarinet solo (beautifully played by principal Wenzel Fuchs) rising abouve harsh, staccato chords, evoked the anguish of the individual during harsh, menacing times (has anyone experienced feeling like that recently?). Berliner flautist Jelke Weber says the swooping horn passages remind her of the American prairie. This writer, too, imagines American pastorale during the passages, in the first movement and the finale, that quote, (perhaps unconsciously?), a motif from Aaron Copland’ s 1944 ballet, Appalachian Spring. And then, Korngold briefly evokes “Over There” at two points in the finale. Notwithstanding these American or neo-American influences, the formal matrix and the harmonic language sounds thoroughly central European, circa 1900. 

Kirill Petrenko (Stephan Rabold photo)

More than one listener has raised the question of coherence. Jelke, in an online conversation available at the Berliner’ s “Digital Concert Hall,” also questions whether the many beautifully conceived and scored episodes that pass us by as we experience it add up to a whole. Is there, she queries, a deeper meaning?

The contradictions within a symphony that may appear partially homeless and uprooted will not go easily away. The New York Times, in its occasionally snarky preview of November 11th, opines that Korngold’s Symphony “sounds weary, burdened, at times even angry to be fighting its battles once again…remarkably hollow.”

This writer begs to differ, and strongly, with the evaluation of the august Times (and he notes that the paper of record got a lot wrong about the recent election, too). We may be facing a contradictory, imperfect work. It is, however, anything but hollow. The composer clearly wanted to make a serious statement, and he deployed his very considerable musical gifts, and his lived experience as an exile, to that end.

Insofar as an instrumental expression can be about something other than itself, this one clearly evokes the between-two-worlds cursus of the composer, and his fears and hopes during the war and immediate-postwar years. Korngold insisted that no program applied. But he clearly baked the late 1940’ s willy-nilly into it. The title page offers one key to comprehension in its dedication to the memory of Franklin D. Roosevelt. But the president is present, not simply as a dedicatee, but also as an actor in the symphony. Roosevelt becomes the center/subject of the extensive slow movement, and his signature motif forms a significant presence moving forward afterwards. Was this Korngold’ s Eroica?

Korngold, we are told, created leitmotivs for the characters in the films he scored. Has anyone previously noticed in this symphony that the three-note motif, permeating the entire Adagio, and returning again in the finale, derives from the late president’ s name? The motif can be solfèged Fa-Do-Re. That gives us, of course, “F.D.R.,” and his initials drive the musical material, creating through this movement a genuinely loving and reverential memorial to a great man.

The “Roosevelt” symphony’ s celebratory finale clearly constitutes some sort of summing-up. Program annotator Steven Ledbetter notes a somber self-quotation from the composer’ s score to the film King’ s Row. The dream of American pastoral returns with the Coplandesque tune first heard in the opening movement, now morphed into a vigorous, angular theme, then reprised in a nostalgically. And the F.D.R. theme/motif reemerges both in a quick passage and a reprise of the third-movement elegy. Shortly before the end, Korngold restates a menacing marcia-ostinato from the opening movement, as if to say, “The war is over, but the menace is not dead.”

The eccentricities of the music remain, but may be heard, in this writer’ s view, as features rather than bugs. Korngold juxtaposed Viennese tonal language with formal schema, and cinematic dream images, with Americanisms, while he contrasted the anxieties of the war years with hopes for a happier future. These multitudes coexist in this big, quasi-epic, produced by someone whom we now see was an important creator of the 20th century.

Petrenko is deeply invested in this music, and as he directed, his small frame became a vessel for transmitting Korngold’ s vision, most remarkably perhaps in the profoundly moving Adagio. One could sense the electricity flowing from the conductor to these deeply engaged, supremely gifted musicians. Every second conveyed energy and meaning; this close-to-ideal performance entirely merited the standing ovation that followed on the last note. Thanks to this orchestra and its leader for a memorable evening!

Joel Cohen is director of Camerata Mediterranea and music director emeritus of The Boston Camerata. He most recently created  “We’ll Be There,” a program of American spirituals, Black and White, for Camerata appearances in Boston and New York.




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