I went to the BSO performance on thursday of previously commissioned pieces by the BSO. This was a concert of music entirely from the latter half of the last century, and it ran just over two and a half hours. What? It is difficult to program modernist music for a major symphony at all let alone a long concert of four big (either in length or effect) pieces (Dutilleaux - Sympony no. 2, Stravinsky - Symphony of Psalms, Carter - Boston Concerto, and Bartok - Concerto for Orchestra). How does Levine get away with this? For those who know these pieces or these kind of pieces, this was a dreamy proposition, especially with how smoking good the BSO plays right now regardless of the fact that with this newer music you can tell they are only doing it because they believe in Levine and not because they believe in the pieces. But for those in the audience who come to the Symphony for a dressy, sophisticated 2nd date, or for 19th century nostalgia, or were being dragged by tourism (as was the case with a man behind me who clearly did not want to be there - I knew this because when the Dutilleax started he turned to his wife and said, in earnest, "I should have gotten drunk at the hotel before this"). But the weird thing to me, having gone to a few BSO performance this fall, was that there was a distinct buzz in the room, an almost nervous excitement, before and during the concert. While, previously I got the sense of BSO concerts as haughty, assured, intellectual, and wearing the sort of dressed-down arrogance that New England high culture substitutes for modesty. All of which I actually enjoy, despite being self-conscious of my own fake modesty, if only because it makes concert going seem normal, something you might do after work (or school) and not just on special occasions. But in this case, I sensed a slight bit of scandal, a little "well, this will be interesting...", and a hefty portion of failed attempts to explain just what the hell was going on in the music of Dutilleaux. But the overheard failed attempts with Dutilleaux were more interesting than the safe sentimental slobber that came with the Symphony of Psalms: "Oh I liked the Stravinsky, it was...ravishing, delicate, transcendant, charming etc." I think Levine actually managed to confuse people with the Dutilleaux that started the program. While on the one hand, it was the piece played with the least fervor, the least commitment (probably due to the fact that it's grossly underprogramed and Dutilleaux is so underappreciated in general), on the other it was the most provacative of choices, and in many ways the most radical, musically (and extra-musically) of the bunch. Carter's piece was extremely fresh; intricate pointillistic refrains ricocheting across the orchestra, interspersed with playful, lyrical, sometimes haunting excursions into various smaller 'solo' groupings, and above all exacted with Carter's effervescent lucidity, it all worked with that satisfaction derived from a beautiful machine, or architectural blueprints. But Carter has a long standing relationship with the BSO, and furthermore, he was there at the concert (all 96 years of him), and that always boosts hype. Who knew, or cared, previously that the BSO actually commissioned Dutilleaux's piece? A piece which is for me the most extraordinary exploration of the orchestra in two distinct units (one small and one big) I know of. In it, I think it is possible to find strucutral, compositional solutions to so many problems of composers today who are working on coloristic, timbre experiments. Especially for those who don't want to be like Boulez.
Despite the wonderful shock of Dutilleaux, or as shocking as it might be in jaded old Boston, the concert felt right, it felt contemporary. It felt like these were the pieces that Americans should be playing all the time, and growing to love. In the larger context, Levine's programming is hardly adventurous, especially compared to what goes on in London, but to get a city that is as paradoxically culturally conservative (as compared with its political leaning) to be excited and willing to take Levine's mission on, is a big step.
'till next sunday,

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