BSO plays varied program, explores modern composition

On Feb. 28, the Berkshire Symphony Orchestra performed the first of two scheduled spring semester concerts. The program opened with “Duets,” a 12-tone piece by Joan Tower (of Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman fame), followed by Gustav Mahler’s five “Ruckert Lieder” and Maurice Ravel’s ballet score, “Ma Mere l’Oye” (Mother Goose).

Unfortunately, Chapin Hall was less than full for the performance, a condition possibly attributable to the choice of programming. Avant-garde pieces such as Tower’s seldom attract the popular acclaim or patronage received by diatonic music. Twelve-tone music, unlike diatonic, is founded on a system of composition in which each of the 12 tones of the chromatic scale is played in succession, without repetition. The tonic-dominant containment of pre-Shoenbergian music is eliminated altogether, producing, for the untrained ear, music of a cacophonous, chaotic character. Such atonal form was developed as a reaction to the perceived terminus of diatonic music in the wake of the post-Romantic period, early in the 20th century, and is considered by many to be the only legitimate avenue open for true subjectivity in modern music, in spite of its failure to move the masses.

I must confess that I have to be included among said “unenlightened” masses, because try as I might, I cannot bring myself to respond aesthetically to atonal music in any meaningful way. Accordingly, I can’t really give an informed analysis of the comparative merits of “Duets,” relative to other 12-tone pieces. The BSO certainly did well in highlighting the various duo-dynamics in the piece: the featured pairings of cellos, flutes, trumpets and horns were expertly performed. Perhaps the composition’s most notable moment was a sustained, haunting unresolved chord in the strings that would have sent Shostakovich into ecstasy.

The highlight of the evening, however, was undoubtedly the Mahler. The featured baritone, Randal Scarlata, has appeared as a soloist with such prestigious ensembles as the Philadelphia Orchestra, the National Symphony and the Minnesota Orchestra. Needless to say, expectations ran high and, overall, Scarlata didn’t disappoint. Although the first pair of “Ruckert Lieder” were performed in a rather lackluster manner by orchestra and baritone alike, both entities were fully redeemed over the course of the next three songs. The third of the “Ruckert Lieder,” titled “Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft!” (I breathed a gentle fragrance!), found Scarlata beginning to breathe life into the magnificent music of Herr Gustav, just as the song’s subject imbibes the tender fragrance of a linden branch: the delicate charm of the piece was well conveyed by all forces. Having found Mahler’s voice, soloist and orchestra managed to sustain it over the next two pieces, which, taken together, represented the emotional apex of the evening. In “Um Mitternacht” (At midnight), a profoundly sensitive, introspective account morphed, in the last stanza, into a triumphant fanfare, vaguely reminiscent – on a much smaller scale, naturally – of the finale to Mahler’s “Resurrection Symphony.” The final song, “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” (I am lost to the world), allowed the soloist to display his full range with graceful poise. The glorious climax was performed with great feeling, vocally and instrumentally and served as a fitting capstone to the series of lieder.

As the final composition of the evening, Ravel’s “Mother Goose,” was something of a letdown. The ballet was composed in 1911, the year of Mahler’s death, and began with a promising prelude featuring “Elven” fanfares in the horns, followed by six successive episodic, fairy-tale “movements” – a Spinning-Wheel Dance, “Pavanne of Sleeping Beauty,” “Conversations of Beauty and the Beast,” “Hop o’ my Thumb,” “The Ugly Little Girl” and “The Fairy Garden.” A few more rehearsals of this piece would have done the BSO a world of good: the solos were executed well, as were the pentatonic passages in “The Ugly Little Girl” and the finale had a lot of energy, but everything else sounded uninspired.

All in all, the concert was fair to good, with a bit of everything from the 20th century: an avant-garde piece, a post-Romantic song cycle and an impressionistic ballet. Although the playing was at times spotty, the combination of technical prowess and interpretive sensitivity shown in the “Ruckert Lieder” were impressive and demonstrated the potential of a great orchestra.

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