Dohnányi ended with Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony, which he brought here with the Cleveland Orchestra in 2000. That performance was an object lesson to the BSO — full-throated but unforced brasses, shadowy syncopations, titillating pizzicatos. But now the BSO can equal the musicality and the brilliance of the Cleveland. The Tchaikovsky probably wasn’t as devastating as Tchaikovsky himself thought it should be — the finale sounded more like the cavalry arriving to the rescue than the trumpets of doom. But with especially characterful playing by oboe (John Ferrillo), bassoon (Richard Svoboda), and clarinet (William Hudgins), it was a wonderfully engaging showpiece.
I was eager to hear the Ying Quartet in an unusual “concept” program at the ICA conceived by an electronic-music master, MIT’s Tod Machover. At the heart of this event was Machover’s . . . but not simpler . . ., his new acoustic string quartet, which takes its title from Einstein’s famous remark “One should always make things as simple as possible, but not simpler.” Machover surrounded it with a selection of some of his favorite pieces, what he calls a “continuous fantasy,” an uninterrupted sequence that ranged from the opening and closing movements of Beethoven’s last string quartet (which bracket everything else) to two powerful Fragments for string quartet from the 1990s by one of Machover’s mentors, Elliott Carter, and a delicate movement from a Cage quartet to transcriptions of Bach, Byrd, and the Beatles (“A Day in the Life”), all joined by original “Interludes” composed by Machover.
I’ve had my reservations about the Yings, though it’s been some years since I’ve heard them. The three brothers and their violist sister sound good together. But already in the opening Beethoven movement I was feeling something go a little flat — not intonation (in that respect they’re impeccable), but some sort of musical complacency. Everything sounds a little too comfortable, well-rehearsed, pat. The Carter was stirring (the first Fragment is all in the uppermost register), and so was. . . but not simpler . . ., which does exactly what Machover intends: “dramatizes the search for calm and coherence in the midst of complexity and diversity.” And the “Interludes” were captivatingly varied.
But though some of the individual sections provided a lot of pleasure, the whole “invention” was both too complicated and too simple. At least on a first hearing, I didn’t feel the entire compilation added up to something more than a medley of Machover’s favorite pieces. Maybe partly because the Yings didn’t convince me that they comprehended the stylistic range of Machover’s imagination. “A Day in the Life,” exciting as it was, didn’t seem connected or responsive to Carter, or Byrd, or Machover. Maybe the biggest victim of this event was Machover’s own quartet, which got a little buried. I’m eager to hear it on its own.
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