Boston Symphony Orchestra

Charles Munch's First BSO Recordings

By Brian Bell   |   Friday, March 25, 2011
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Mar. 25

A little background on this week's BSO on Record...

In December of 1949, RCA Victor arrived at Symphony Hall to make the first Boston Symphony records with their new Music Director, Charles Munch (left).

Just as we've seen an evolution of playback technology recently, the Battle of the Turntable Speeds was raging, and Victor was issuing their new 45 RPM discs in addition to the standard discs of 78 RPM.

Fortunately the recording medium by this time was tape, and the sound quality compared to just a few years earlier was significant.

Just hours before the sessions, Munch had fallen ill and had left the concerts to Richard Burgin to conduct, but Munch led the first BSO recording of the Beethoven Seventh Symphony and the first-ever disc of any music from Berlioz's Beatrice and Benedict.

Any question of his health was resolved by the following April, when he made the first of his four recordings of Ravel's La Valse, which closes the program. This one is easily the most frenetic.

Tune in Sunday at 2pm to hear all of it.

The Tempest, Shakespeare's Most Musical Play

By James David Jacobs   |   Wednesday, March 23, 2011
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The Tempest was written and premiered exactly four centuries ago in 1611. It's the last play that Shakespeare wrote without collaboration. And it's one of only two plays he wrote which is not an adaptation of an existing story or history.

(The other one is Love’s Labours Lost, one of Shakespeare’s first plays.)

It is truly an original work, one that stands at the crossroads of theatrical history: between the Renaissance and the Baroque, between the Elizabethan theatre of the imagination and the Jacobean spectacle, between the primacy of the word and the primacy of sensory entertainment.

The common link between all of these is music. It's no coincidence that at the same time these upheavals were taking place in England, the art form known as opera was being born in Italy (the first operatic masterpiece, Monteverdi's L'Orfeo, was premiered in 1607.)

One of the most remarkable aspects of the play is how aware it is of its own historical position, how consciously Shakespeare bids farewell to past trends and welcomes new ones, reinventing himself even at the end of his career. This is particularly evident in his use of music and sound cues, which are integrated into the text in an unprecedented way.
 

Be not afeard, the isle is full of noises,
Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears; and sometime voices,
That if I then wak’d after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again, and then in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open, and show riches
Ready to drop upon me, that when I wak’d
I cried to dream again.
(Caliban, Act III scene ii)

 

George Romney's The Tempest, Act I, scene i (1797)

At just over 2,000 lines, The Tempest is one of Shakespeare’s shortest plays on the page (only The Comedy of Errors has fewer lines), but that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily the shortest in performance.

There are many places where the music takes over, and whole scenes are performed in mime and dance, or, most remarkably, with the characters themselves just standing there listening to the music along with the audience.

We have a better idea of what the music in the original production sounded like than we do for any other Shakespeare play.  That's thanks to surviving settings by the composer and lutenist Robert Johnson of two songs from the play ("Full Fathom Five" and "Where the Bee Sucks").

Since this play was written to be played indoors for a court theatre, there were possibilities for more subtlety in the scoring than would be possible at an outdoor theater, and we can be sure Shakespeare took advantage of that; you certainly couldn’t hear a solo lute, or a viol consort, at the Globe.

(Another new innovation of the indoor theater was intermission; outdoor productions were played without a break, but court performances had long intermissions with plenty of refreshments available, not unlike the Metropolitan Opera today. Near the end of Act III scene i, Miranda says to Ferdinand, apropos of nothing related to the plot, “And now farewell / Till half an hour hence.”)
 
While many of Shakespeare’s plays have inspired musical settings through the years, what’s unique about The Tempest is how few changes are necessary to make the play adaptable to music of many centuries, not to mention film.

Many of the settings of Romeo and Juliet, for example, could just as easily refer to the older tragic love stories Shakespeare himself drew on when writing that play. But The Tempest is truly a world Shakespeare himself created, and it is no coincidence that it is the least dated of Shakespeare’s plays, the one that requires the least translation for a modern audience.

And one of the main reasons for this is that it is the play in which he puts the most trust in the power of music.



In March, the Boston Symphony Orchestra performed a concert devoted in large part to music inspired by Williams Shakespeare's The Tempest.

Thomas Adès conducted scenes from his own opera based on the play, along with Tempest-inspired pieces by Tchaikovsky and Sibelius. In addition, Anthony Marwood was the soloist for Adès's Violin Concerto, "Concentric Paths." Adès talked with Brian Bell about the entire concert, including the conception of a program built around The Tempest:
 

Hear WGBH's BSO broadcast producer Brian Bell's interview with
composer and conductor Thomas Adès
.


Brian Bell also talked with Hila Plitmann, who sang the role of Ariel:

Hear WGBH's BSO broadcast producer Brian Bell's interview with
soprano Hila Plitmann
.


Oboist Alfred Genovese

Thursday, March 24, 2011
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Boston Symphony and Andris Nelsons: The Reviews

By Brian McCreath   |   Sunday, March 20, 2011
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Mar. 20

Ever since the announcement of James Levine's resignation from his position as Music Director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra (which you can read and hear about via our BSO broadcast producer Brian Bell's interview with Mark Volpe, Managing Director of the BSO, and segments on both the Emily Rooney Show and the Callie Crossley Show), one of the names that's popped up consistently as a potential successor to Levine is that of Andris Nelsons.

I'm pretty sure his name would be on most observers' short lists no matter what, based on reviews and impressions of his work as conductor of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in England. But the BSO fanned those flames substantially by engaging the 32-year-old Latvian to replace Levine for the BSO's Carnegie Hall performance of Mahler's Ninth Symphony on March 17.

And here are a few impressions from that concert:

Jeremy Eichler of the Boston Globe wrote that, "he scored a triumph on Thursday night in his BSO debut ... And in what is high praise from this orchestra, the BSO musicians stayed seated during one of Nelsons’s bows and joined the crowd in applauding him, shuffling feet vigorously." Eichler described his presence on the podium as "youthful but unflashy, leading with a podium technique that is far from conventional," which led to an "organic quality of the music-making, a sense of deep and thoughtful immersion in the musical moment at hand" and "some of the strongest playing of the season."

Overall, Eichler saw and heard "the full partnering of conductor and ensemble in the creation of a vibrant performance." Read the full review at the Boston Globe.

Meanwhile, at the New York Times, James Oestreich heard something quite different from the Nelsons/BSO combo. According to him, Nelsons "did not have [the BSO] sounding its best. It wasn’t so much a question of wrong notes or rhythms and the like, though there were those. It was more a matter of blatancy and imbalance." Calling the performance "muscular" (and that's not meant as praise in this work), he went on to say that, "Almost everything was at least a notch too loud, and almost everything surged to the foreground. Textures were cluttered. Accompanimental figures often seemed italicized."

It wasn't completely unsuccessful, as "Mr. Nelsons persuasively stressed the humor in the scherzo and the wildness in the Rondo-Burleske." But clearly Oestreich is not yet convinced that this relationship need be explored further. Full review (plus impressions of the concert conducted by Roberto Abbado, available at the New York Times.

Finally, a blog I only became aware of because of this concert, thousandfold echo, says that Oestreich's perceptions were accurate, but that rather than consider them a negative, the attention to detail is actually a positive: "Some approach Mahler’s intricate counterpoint by thinning out and clarifying the textures; Nelsons and the BSO took a more satisfying approach of endowing the inner voices with soloistic color and phrasing. Yet this attention to phrasing never broke up the line or descended to fussy point-making; it all seemed natural."

And the writer, Michael, noticed the same reaction of the players after the performance concluded: "When he came out for the second curtain call, the orchestra refused to rise, and sat there applauding him, until he took a solo bow. By this time the audience was on its feet."

That last point may turn out to be vitally important. Part of the reason Levine came to the BSO in the first place was the enthusiasm of the players for his work. And major orchestras like the BSO can be downright cranky when they're not on board with a conductor. So if there really is the enthusiasm from the musicians as described in two of these three reviews, BSO management will, in my opinion, be very wise in considering another opportunity to bring in Andris Nelsons for a series of concerts.

I can say, by the way, that Andris Nelsons is a name I thought of, too, when Levine's departure was announced. In the series of concert performances I program for the radio each Wednesday afternoon at 2pm, there have been a couple conducted by him, and my memory of these one-time-use recordings is that they were stellar. I'm intending to do a bit more digging around to see whether we might be able to secure a few more of his concert performances to offer on the air. Stay tuned, as they say.

And if you have more to add about Nelsons or other potential BSO conductors, just pop your thoughts into a comment below.



Bartók's Bluebeard's Castle

Thursday, March 17, 2011
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Celebrating Bartók

Friday, March 11, 2011
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During this 130th anniversary year of the birth of Béla Bartók (born March 25, 1881), 99.5 All Classical celebrates the groundbreaking Hungarian composer with a series of on demand performances and features.
 



New England Conservatory Philharmonia
The Concerto for Orchestra, one of Béla Bartók's most enduring and popular masterpieces, was commissioned by conductor Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra.  Performed for the first time in December 1944, it remains a regular fixture on orchestra programs around the world, and on March 9, 2011, Benjamin Zander conducted a performance at New England Conservatory's Jordan Hall, with the NEC Philharmonia.
Listen On Demand



Discovery Ensemble
Courtney Lewis conducts one of Boston's most exciting orchestras, Discovery Ensemble, in Bartók's kaleidoscopic Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta. 99.5 All Classical host Brian McCreath talks with Lewis about the piece, with a walk-through of each of the movements, all recorded in 99.5 All Classical's Fraser Performance Studio.

Listen On Demand
 



Duke Bluebeard's Castle
In 1911, Bartók completed a one-act opera based on Charle Perrault's French fairy tale "Bluebeard," further revising it before its first performance in Budapest in 1918. A dark, pyschologically rich piece, Brian Bell offers a guided tour.
(image:  Gustave Doré's Barbe Bleue, courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Hear a guided tour at Backstage with Brian Bell

 


Takács Quartet, Muzsikás, and Márta Sebestyén
One of the premiere string quartets on today's concert stages joins forces with a legendary Hungarian folk ensemble and equally legendary Hungarian folk singer to explore the roots of Bartók's music.



Listen On Demand
 



Pianist Hung-Kuan Chen
Recorded in 2008 in 99.5 All Classical's Fraser Performance Studio, Hung-Kuan Chen performs a piece that combines Bartók's fascination with folk music and his evolving perspective of the piano as a percussion instrument, the Out of Doors Suite, in a program that also includes music by Brahms and Ravel.

Listen On Demand

 

 


Violinist Augustin Hadelich
Recorded in 2008 in 99.5 All Classical's Fraser Performance Studio, Augustin Hadelich performs Bartók's Sonata for solo violin, Sz. 117.




Listen On Demand
 




Violinist Lara St. John and Pianist Anton Kuerti at the Montreal Chamber Music Festival
Recorded on May 14, 2009, at St. James Church during the Montreal Chamber Music Festival, Lara St. John and Anton Kuerti perform Bartók's Rhapsody No. 2, Sz. 89, BB 96, written in 1928, part of a program that also includes music by Beethoven, Franck, Hindson, Ravel, and Liszt.

Listen On Demand
 

 

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