Low rent

By LLOYD SCHWARTZ  |  November 6, 2007

One high point was the first American concert performance of Berio’s last purely electronic piece, the 1957 Moment, for pre-recorded tape. Ranging from baby burbles to spacy space music, with abrupt changes from sustained “notes” to quicksilver “pizzicatos,” it all sounded unmistakably like Berio. The playback machine won a big hand. The evening ended with Hoose conducting with both delicacy and tremendous, climactic force the two pianists and percussionists Craig McNutt (marimba) and Nicholas Tolle (vibraphone) in the 1973 Linea, in which Berio sometimes ominously, sometimes whimsically reminded me of W.H. Auden’s lines about how “all the clocks in the city/Began to whirr and chime:/‘O let not Time deceive you,/You cannot conquer Time.’ ” These wonderful musicians seemed to make time stop.

The German conductor Markus Stenz made a good impression in his Boston Symphony Orchestra debut, in spite of the disjunctive program: Mozart’s Symphony No. 1 (composed by the time he was nine) and Violin Concerto No. 2 (from 10 years later), the American premiere of the Australian composer Brett Dean’s violin concerto The Lost Art of Letter Writing (as a viola player, Dean spent 15 years in the Berlin Philharmonic), and the frequently heard Schumann Symphony No 2 (James Levine conducted it here only a year ago).

The Schumann was particularly effective. Stenz gives the impression of solidity, but he also swings; you can see rhythms shooting up from his toes and through his body like a bolt of electricity. He can do a sprightly dance. One of his gestures suggested diving into a wave. The orchestra followed his hair-trigger tempo changes and lively, almost intuitive syncopations. Mozart’s little First Symphony had a similar rhythmic alertness and dynamic flexibility. It’s full of inspired ideas (in one theme eight repeated notes) that don’t ever amount to much here but promise delightful things to come.

The guest star was the elegant German violinist Frank Peter Zimmermann, who commissioned the Dean concerto. He played it beautifully, rhapsodically, as did the orchestra, but more than a half-hour of Romantic but unmemorable musical gestures is much too long. The four movements were inspired by letters from Brahms, Van Gogh, Hugo Wolf, and the Australian bush ranger Ned Kelly. Dean quotes Brahms’s Fourth Symphony in the extended opening movement, and Kelly’s social and political outrage emerges in the fast finale, but most of the music seems second-hand — more opaque than illuminating, more familiar than freshly minted.

Zimmermann never plays an ugly note. His tone has an easy radiance; it’s never thick or gloppy. But it is unvaried. No growls, no moans, no shrieks, no seductive whispers, not even when one of these aberrations might be telling. What saves him from mere suavity is his gift for phrasing and rhythm. Dean at least gave him a workout, but I wish he had chosen a piece that demanded more colors than Mozart’s most conventional violin concerto.

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