It's an odd work, an operetta, combining sophisticated harmonies and rhythms clearly anticipating Britten's first operatic masterpiece of four years later, Peter Grimes, with familiar and sometimes arch Americana (folk tunes, blues — a ranginess typical of Britten's early work); just as Auden's libretto veers from sly word play (rhyming "Scandinavia" with "bad behavior") to a ballsy chorus of husky Swedish lumberjacks singing "We're handsome, free, and gay" (proto-Monty Python?) and grand pronouncements like "America can break your heart." Skillfully and affectionately staged by James Robinson and colorfully designed by Justin Townsend, everyone involved gave this problematic work its best shot.
BSO with Salonen, von Dohnányi, and Haitink
The Boston Symphony Orchestra isn't an organization where one is likely to encounter controversy. But, in its mildest form, a BSO concert a couple of weeks ago provided some. The Finnish conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen last led the BSO in 1988 (I remember being impressed with the refined obedience of his silky blond hair — which is just about the only thing I remember from his previous visit), went on to direct the LA Philharmonic, where he has since 2009 been listed as conductor laureate (making way for Gustavo Dudamel) in order to devote himself more to composing. He returned to the BSO with a program of two famous orchestral showpieces, Ravel's super-refined Tombeau de Couperin and Stravinsky's dazzling Firebird ballet score (in its complete version), and his own 2009 Violin Concerto, played rapturously by Leila Josefowicz, whose only previous BSO appearance was opening the 1995 season with the Sibelius Violin Concerto under Seiji Ozawa.
There wasn't much disagreement over the Ravel and the Stravinsky. Salonen's rubber wrists practically caressed the Ravel, which was a virtual — and eloquent — oboe concerto for the BSO's phenomenal principal oboist, John Ferrillo. And Firebird had breathtaking playing as well, especially principal bassoonist Richard Svoboda's dreamy solo in the Firebird's lullaby. Salonen built the score to the stunning final climax of General Thanksgiving, which could describe not only the last scene of the ballet but the condition of the audience itself.
The Violin Concerto, in between, also got a strong response, but both positive and negative. It's endlessly colorful, shimmering and palpitating, and fit right into a program in which orchestral color predominated. In his program note, Salonen compares the beating timpani in the slow movement to the "heartbeat of the person next to you in bed, sound asleep." The last movement, Adieu, is a long farewell — maybe to the LA Phil? — that ends with a corny uplifting key change on the last chord: "the beginning of something new." The soloist astoundingly plays through all this virtually non-stop.
It's a slick piece, professionally orchestrated, yet going in a dozen directions which don't quite cohere. It's certainly not dull. I was on the edge of my seat wondering when I was going to hear a fresh or original musical idea. Tombeau and especially Firebird also have underlying narratives, but they're not just soundscapes. They're consistently inventive, memorable, surprising, and musically compelling, even after many hearings. Salonen's concerto sounded to me like a collection of gestures I'd heard before. Instead of real or complex feeling, embodied in memorable musical shapes, where there was any feeling at all, the concerto was content to be sentimental and melodramatic. Pounding tom-toms and tam-tam. Swoony, woozy glissandi. Rippling ethereal harp. When it was over, I couldn't remember a note.