Music of the Future
Maurice Ravel: Mother Goose
Bright Sheng: Red Silk Dance (world premiere)
Franz Liszt: Piano Concerto #2
Claude Debussy: La Mer
Emanuel Ax (piano)
Boston Symphony Orchestra
Robert Spano (conductor)
Some wag in the New York Times a few weeks ago remarked that at least we had only a few more days to put up with that dreadful twentieth century music. Last evening in Boston the sold out audience was treated to very possibly the first piece of significant twenty-first century music ever performed as a forward-looking commission spawned the latest from the calligraphic pen of Bright Sheng, a leading member of the next generation of legitimate concert planners and architects. This work, written for Emanuel Ax and the BSO, is an inclusionary one meant to convey the multiculturalism of the ancient Silk Road so vital to the spread of both Eastern and Western civilizations. This aural essay was fortuitously coincidental for my companion and me as we had recently spent time together in the ancient Silk Road city of Urumqi in the Xinjiang Province of China. Mr. Sheng endeavors to meld Han Chinese and Turkic melodies and rhythms to produce a new type of metrical interplay and, in the large sense, achieves his goal colorfully. Fast-slow-fast is apparently still with us in the new millennium and Mr. Sheng's polyrhythms were for the most part satisfyingly complex and varied. The middle section was the most overtly repetitious and tended to drag, but the overall effect of this piece was similar to a dance suite in the manner of a Kodaly or Bartok Mr. Ax seemed to navigate the lowest and highest regions of the keyboard with ease and to attack these lively dances with the proper gusto. The orchestra, reduced to an accompanying role, was adequate if not inspiring. Mr. Sheng was on hand to receive the applause of the crowd and perhaps in years to come this evening will be remembered as a breakthrough of a new aesthetic, although there were surprising echoes of traditionally Maoist music, particularly Chen Gang's Dagger Dance.
The Liszt is a prime example of the "music of the future" so enamored of Berlioz and Wagner. Highly passionate and free-formed, it affected 19th century audiences (particularly the ladies) deeply, causing any number of swoons in its early years. Mr. Ax is a master of the standard repertoire and pulled off a fine performance.
The Ravel is a less accomplished essay. Although known for his fine orchestrations of his own piano works, he seems to have sunk into the mire of effects for their own sake in this particular transcription. The percussion section in particular is overused and there are too many cloying purrs from the solo violin for my taste.
The most revolutionary work of the evening was undoubtedly La Mer. The Philadelphia Orchestra, in the midst of their centennial season, is touting themselves as the most important vehicle for American and world premieres of the last century, but other institutions have done their fair share. This groundbreaking piece of impressionistic polytonality was given its US premiere by the BSO in 1907. I'm sure that the performance that night was exquisite, but last evening it was a travesty. I have run into Robert Spano before, in a horrible injustice perpetrated on the impressionable Juilliard School Orchestra, and I certainly hope that the board doesn't give any serious consideration to this poseur as a successor to the fine departing maestro Seiji Ozawa as he makes his way to Vienna. Mr. Spano apparently received high marks in conducting class for emotive gestures but seems to have cut all of the lectures on proper phrase building and general orchestral technique. His La Mer is little more than an algae-ridden tide pool. Having just heard this orchestra perform two of the Three Nocturnes at Carnegie under Ozawa, I know that they have the French impressionistic sound in their arsenal. Last evening, however, there was no commander to give the order to fire. In a city that prides itself on its culture (the subway stop is marked simply as "symphony") it will be important to choose wisely a leader who can develop this mighty musical force far into the next decades. The BSO, who once passed over local boy Leonard Bernstein, might consider a regency under their principal guest conductor Bernard Haitink until a properly charismatic personality can step up. Choose in haste; repent at leisure.
Frederick L. Kirshnit