Gilbert Assembled an Unusual Program

Garrick Ohlsson, Justin Dello Joio, Alan Gilbert (Hilary Scott photo)

Alan Gilbert, in his 20th-anniversary appearance with the BSO, whom I wrote about [HERE] in 2009, likes to assemble unusual programs. This time he brought to Boston a significant discovery, hidden away for so many years: the Serenade in F Major, op. 31, by Wilhelm Stenhammar, composed 1909-14. Various sources hail Stenhammar (1871-1927) as Sweden’s slightly younger answer to Finland’s Sibelius, indeed a post-Wagnerian late Romantic like the Czech Josef Suk, whose work this one reminded me of. Its five movements last a little more than half an hour. The Overtura begins mostly with brightly hurrying and even frantic upper strings, elegantly answered with a quartet of solo cellos. Winds have a lesser, mostly punctuating role here, which is probably why the Canzonetta second movement brought forth more prominent wind sound, beginning with a fine cantilena for clarinet in warm dialogue with cellos. This movement was really a waltz, full of rubato and northern melody such as Tchaikovsky would have admired. The scherzo that followed, marked Presto, was a wild ride, furiously developed with bright horns, and many rapid four-bar groups coalescing into a march supported by an emotional snare drum. The end of this long scherzo settled on a low E pedal in the strings that rose octave by octave into the high register and gently led into the Notturno fourth movement, a chorale in A minor with an eloquent oboe solo, followed by paired flutes, oboes and clarinets over unison strings. The finale begins with a noticeable Russian sixth (see my note about this characteristic northern gesture HERE, and a sunrise horn call, rapidly changing to galloping triplets with dotted rhythm, but this soon became a spaciously modulating texture, a well-controlled post-Brahmsian chromatic language refreshingly enriched with Debussyan ninths. Eventually the sunrise became a quiet sunset, and the entire movement ended in a clear, high pianissimo F major, not surprising but satisfying. The relatively high tessitura of most of this handsome work’s string texture validated it as a genuine serenade, not as a symphony nor even a sinfonietta. Perhaps because one of Alan Gilbert’s regular conducting homes is The Royal Opera in Stockholm, this little-known Swedish masterpiece reached Tangelwood in 2021 and Symphony Hall this weekend. (On his next visit he should bring some more Stenhammar, and even a symphony by a great Swedish predecessor, Franz Berwald, 1796-1868.)

Justin Dello Joio’s 20-minute-long Piano Concerto Oceans Apart received its long-delayed premiere in this series; composed as a Boston Symphony co-commission for Garrick Ohlsson, the work was intended for a premiere several years ago but was not completed in time. One reason for the delay may have been the very large orchestra required, with woodwinds by threes, brass with four different kinds of mutes, multiply divided strings, and a huge percussion department. The composer, wearing a scarf around his shoulders, came to the stage before the performance to explain the personal and political significance of the title: people of today moving more and more away from each other. This explanation helped me understand why the new work didn’t sound at all like La mer, despite the complex orchestral texture in rapid divided string figurations of indefinite notes constantly in senza misura, individual players not together starting and stopping, and regularized arpeggios in bunched woodwinds. The orchestra was constantly fighting with itself with accents in shouts, growls, wails, and sffz barks, and glissing strings that often sounded like an Onde Martenot; occasionally a perceptible beat pattern emerged with a definite sense of forward motion. The piano part took on more regularity of patterns, alternated between broken-chord groups moving by chromatic scale up and down the keyboard à la Liszt, and big-fisted chords in the Tchaikovsky concerto style, in the 19th-century grand manner. In some sensitive moments, a definite harmonic language emerged, though often blurred by the overall sound: prominent tritones with octave doubling at the beginning and returning similarly near the end; Ravel’s beloved inverted-ninth sonority (imagine B flat-C sharp-E-A in close position), suggesting jazz keyboard style; and a haunting, poignant appearance of pure triads in a quiet piano cadenza. I enjoyed watching one trombonist constantly juggling mutes: straight mute, Harmon B – Aluminum Wow Wow mute, cup mute, and rubber plunger (I looked for a bucket mute but didn’t see one). With a few exceptions, in the quietest passages, I couldn’t hear much of the elaborate percussion, except for the rainstick, bell tree, and small gong imitating a thunder sheet, which proved eerily effective. If one had a hard time comprehending Oceans Apart as a concerto in the sense of joint action in cooperative dialogue. In the original Latin sense (concertare, to struggle, “to contend with zealously”), one could digest it as oceanic separation of struggles. Garrick Ohlsson, one of the best pianists alive, grasped this nettle—gloves-off—with assertive confidence and even delight. Gilbert assembled everything with precision.

The concert had begun with a brisk, five-minute, cheerful, post-Impressionist sendoff. Lili Boulanger’s D’un matin de printemps, includes adumbrations of Ravel’s harmony of the late 1920s even though Lili Boulanger, a near-genius and the first woman ever to win the Premier Prix de Rome in composition, died in 1918 at age 25. Lili’s older sister Nadia Boulanger dedicated much of her long life to propagating Lili’s work. Full disclosure: I am president of the Lili Boulanger Memorial Fund, Inc., established by Nadia, and which will welcome contributions in support of young composers and performers (the Boston Symphony still includes one fine musician who benefited some years back).

Antonin Dvořák’s Carnival Overture, op. 92, composed in 1891, completed the program. This familiar burst of joyful A major (same key as Berlioz’s Roman Carnival, but no other similarities) is more popular than the later symphonic poems, and the Boston Symphony first played it in 1895. Gilbert’s energetic drive got the Friday afternoon codgers to cheering.

Click HERE for a related interview.

Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert on the music of Alban Berg, Debussy, and other early 20th-century composers. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (Ph.D., 1967), he has published on many music subjects, and edited the revised fourth (1978) and fifth (1987) editions of Harmony by his teacher Walter Piston.

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