Variety show

By LLOYD SCHWARTZ  |  March 8, 2006

Of course, there’s more to Boston’s musical stew than the BSO, though Levine’s arrival has certainly stirred the pot. The Bank of America Celebrity Series presented the first Boston recital by the remarkable Polish coloratura contralto (that’s what I said!) Ewa Podles, who combines a voice of unusual depth and breadth (the darkest velour) with unusual flexibility and brilliance. Imagine the voice of Marilyn Horne or Cecilia Bartoli descending into the bowels of Filene’s Basement. The vocal phenomenon was more impressive than the artistic insight. Podles is a rather old-school interpreter. Nothing was ever stupid or insincere, but almost everything was broad, loud, and vehement: Chopin, Brahms, Rachmaninov, Tchaikovsky, Rossini. Short, plump, and in her middle years, she conveyed an odd image for Rossini’s Joan of Arc, though she could rattle off amazing trills, roulades, and octave leaps. Her most successful effort was her encore, “Cruda sorte,” a characterful showpiece from Rossini’s early hit L’Italiana in Algeri (“The Italian Woman in Algiers”). It made me yearn to see her in a complete opera, especially a comic opera.

Her accompanist was her tall, slim, blonde, dexterous but heavy-handed stepdaughter, Ania Marchwinska.

The Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra’s principal guest conductor and jazz maven, Gunther Schuller, offered an enjoyable “Jazz with Gunther” concert that was evidently still in a state of flux at performance time, departing from the order in the perhaps too hastily printed program, in which not all the pieces had accompanying program notes. Schuller led off with Charles Ives’s unsettling and hypnotic In the Inn. WGBH radio’s Ron della Chiesa narrated Schuller’s own Journey into Jazz, a delightful children’s piece along the lines of Tubby the Tuba and Peter and the Wolf, with a text by Nat Hentoff teaching all newcomers to jazz the essential nature of syncopation, improvisation, and emotional connection. Then Schuller led pianist Randall Hodgkinson in a surprisingly mellow — perhaps too mellow — rendering of Paul Whiteman’s original jazz-orchestra version of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue.

After the break came Debussy’s Golliwog’s Cakewalk, Stravinsky’s delicious Ragtime, and terrific rags by Scott Joplin and Artie Matthews arranged by Schuller. The most unusual piece was the US premiere of Alexander Tcherepnin’s 1945 melodrama The Twelve, which uses a Kurt Weill–like idiom to surround the long, nasty, Brechtian political poem of 1918 by Aleksandr Blok. Actor/director/Chekhov scholar and translator Laurence Senelick recited his own edgy new translation with sinister verve.

Benjamin Zander and the Boston Philharmonic gave a moving, compelling performance of a piece you might not have known you wanted to hear: Elgar’s Symphony No. 1 (1908). Zander led with an expansiveness that allowed Elgar’s stoic and elegiac work its full breadth and dark power, and a feeling for nuanced phrasing that kept every moment alive. I was particularly affected by the passage in the fourth movement in which Elgar transforms a march into music of warm, loving, nostalgic lyricism.

In 1993, Zander led a magnificent version of Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto with Russell Sherman, in which every radiant note seemed deeply felt. The Adagio became a solemn hymn, the finale a joyous dance. Preceding the Elgar, Zander returned to this popular piece, with Canadian pianist and media personality Jon Kimura Parker, who can play the notes and whose phrasing in the last movement showed some lively originality. But despite Zander’s understanding, Parker was coarse and brittle, showing off rather than entering the world of the music. The audience was impressed, but I missed Beethoven.

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