New Music, With Training Wheels

Illustration by Sean McCabe.

Apparently conductors like to teach as much as they enjoy entertaining people or simply showing off, since nearly all orchestral concerts nowadays have some sort of instructive premise. James Levine has not yet spent a full season as the Boston Symphony’s new music director, but he is already giving his audiences plenty of what he thinks is good for them, especially new music. No doubt many listeners object to taking their medicine, but that hardly keeps Dr. Levine from vigorously administering fresh doses. The orchestra’s latest visit to Carnegie Hall offered new scores by two of Levine’s favorite contemporaries—John Harbison and Charles Wuorinen, both born in 1938—and in between was Stravinsky’s severe and tersely compressed twelve-tone Movements for Piano and Orchestra, a late work completed in 1959. The Brahms Second Symphony came last—not exactly a sweetmeat, but in this context definitely a spoonful of sugar.

That said, only ears averse to the prospect of hearing new music of any kind would have been offended by this invigorating concert. Harbison’s Darkbloom: Overture for an Imagined Opera is a positively gorgeous seven-minute curtain-raiser, woven from an assortment of thematic strands that throb with a mysterious lyrical power quite unlike anything I’ve heard from this composer. The “imagined opera” in this case was to be based on Nabokov’s Lolita, a project Harbison abandoned after the subject matter began to strike him as untenable in today’s climate. Too bad, since he was clearly responding to something in the material with unusual urgency.

Wuorinen’s new work is a three-movement piano concerto, the fourth such piece in this composer’s huge catalogue. It was composed to order for Levine and Peter Serkin, who warmed up for it by playing Stravinsky’s Movements with grace and precision. He then threw himself enthusiastically into Wuorinen’s new score, which, without losing its intellectual rigor for a moment, generates a compellingly theatrical play of light and dark moods, all created through a delicious blend of instrumental sonorities, lucid organizational clarity, and clever manipulation of the keyboard’s coloristic resources. A virtuoso pianist is required, of course, and Serkin has exactly what it takes to make this concerto glitter.

As for Levine, he gives every impression of being rejuvenated by his new association. In any case, it was high time for him to put some distance between himself and the crazy politics of the Metropolitan Opera after all these years and take over a major American orchestra, where he can settle down and make music without extramusical distractions. That already seems to be happening in Boston, and perhaps this exceptionally gifted musician will fulfill himself at last.

Postcard from Prague” was the theme of Donald Runnicles’s recent concert with the Orchestra of Saint Luke’s at Carnegie Hall. Even though he wasn’t Czech, Mozart dominated the proceedings, and why not? He was admired in Vienna, but they loved him in Prague, and the composer wrote some of his noblest scores for that city’s discerning audiences, two of them back-to-back in 1786: Symphony No. 38 and Piano Concerto No. 25. The former was given a spruce, musically alert performance, but the concerto had a special glow, thanks to Ivan Moravec’s exquisitely tailored playing of the solo part.

The two authentic Czech scores on the program are both rarities. The three excerpts from Janáˇcek’s Idylla for strings had in fact never before been played in Carnegie Hall, and it’s a pity the whole suite wasn’t offered. This music predates most of the tougher Janáˇcek we usually hear, but that distinctively life-affirming voice is unmistakable in these charming evocations of Moravian country life. A ballet featuring amorous kitchen utensils, Martinù’s saucy La Revue de Cuisine for six instruments actually leaves Prague far behind as it embraces the jazz-soaked music scene in Paris, where the composer was living and working during the twenties. This is most definitely a postcard from France. Its witty message may have a heavy Czech accent, but that doesn’t really matter—some composers seem to feel comfortably at home anywhere, Martinù in Paris no less than Mozart in Prague.

Boston Symphony Orchestra
James Levine, Conductor.
Peter Serkin, Piano. Carnegie Hall.

Orchestra of Saint Luke’s
“Postcard from Prague.”
Donald Runnicles, Conductor.
Ivan Moravec, Piano. Carnegie Hall.

New Music, With Training Wheels