Isn’t it rich?

By LLOYD SCHWARTZ  |  November 3, 2008

This has been a good period for Boston’s Sondheim fans. This fall, there’ve been two terrific productions of Follies, perhaps his most ambitious show (in which “real life” becomes transformed into a series of production numbers): one at Lyric Stage, with a cast of Boston favorites, and one at Boston Conservatory, with a stageful of its staggeringly gifted students, the latest incarnation of its love affair with Sondheim, and director Neil Donohoe heading the brilliant production team. Sondheim, I gather, doesn’t approve of student productions of this show, which is so much about the immaturity of maturity. Too bad he didn’t see Lauren Lukacek, as the naive, self-deluded Sally, and Hannah Jane McMurray (the next Donna Murphy?), as the painfully all-too-knowing Phyllis — very adult performances by actresses who can also sing and (especially McMurray) dance. This was, as always, a team effort, and the curtain call consisted of individual bows for each member of the huge, deserving cast.

An appallingly overamplified sound system distorted both speaking and singing voices to the point of incomprehensibility. Some amplification may be necessary because the theater has no orchestra pit. But opening night, when one performer’s body mic gave out, he could actually be heard more distinctly and appealingly. The school has started a fund drive for a new theater complex (with an orchestra pit!); the best theater department in town deserves a more up-to-date venue.

Boston Conservatory’s String Masters Series presented the estimable Jorja Fleezanus — who’s about to retire from the Minnesota Symphony, where she’s been concertmaster for the last 20 years — in a delicious chamber recital with her frequent partner, master accompanist Karl Paulnack. Spirited and sensitive playing were the order of the evening in a varied program that began with Bach’s E-major Sonata (Fleezanus called it “a honey of a piece”) but centered on two 20th-century pieces, Yehudi Wyner’s rich, rhapsodic, ferocious, jazzy, no-holds-barred Concert Duo (50 years old, but not a bar has dated) and George Perle’s antic, nose-thumbing neo-classical Triptych.

A pair of transcriptions of vocal music — Ravel’s soulful “Kaddish” (from Deux mélodies hébraïques) and Falla’s Suite populaire espagnole (which I wish had sounded a little more Spanish) — and Bartók’s exhilarating, gutsy Romanian Folk Dances fleshed out the program. The sweet-singing nightingale from Berg’s Sieben frühe lieder was the quietly touching encore. A deeply satisfying concert.

James Levine’s French program wasn’t your typical BSO evening of French music. Two-thirds of it was from the late 20th century: Olivier Messiaen’s Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum (1965), to honor the centenary of his birth, and Pierre Boulez’s Notations I-IV (1978), which Boulez himself led here in 1986. Berlioz’s gorgeous Harold en Italie, “Symphony in four parts with viola solo” (1834), with BSO principal violist Steven Ansell, was the reward for sitting through the modern stuff.

The Messiaen is all winds, brass, and metallic percussion (no strings); the Boulez requires a vast orchestra (three harps!), each instrument practically playing its own separate part. Recordings don’t capture their intense physical presence. Levine’s performance was much much slower than any recording I know, so it seemed a mistake that he also almost doubled the minute of silence Messiaen requests between each of the five short movements. Yet the massed climaxes and crashing tam-tams shook the hall, and the repeated gongs of the final movement (“And I have heard a great multitude”) conveyed both solemnity and apocalyptic terror. Boulez’s four short prismatic movements (each based on an even briefer piano solo) were all quicksilver and echo chamber, powerful yet sonically elegant — as if we were inside a factory, but one making Maseratis.

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