Open spaces

By LLOYD SCHWARTZ  |  December 2, 2009

"Ben is for lovers," ran a full-page ad in the BSO program book for a New England Conservatory youth concert led by Benjamin Zander, the conductor with the larger-than-life personality who's on a first-name basis with the world. I've always thought he'd make a splendid Wagnerian, though he'd never led any Wagner until his total Teutonic immersion in his latest Boston Philharmonic Orchestra program. He batted .500. On the first half, the Prelude to act one of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg was so relentlessly loud that the festive multiplicity of criss-crossing themes got lost in the din. The Prelude to Tristan und Isolde lacked mystery and drive. And Linda Watson, international Wagnerian soprano and NEC graduate, overlooked the way Isolde's demanding "liebestod" ("love-death") aria is also extremely intimate, almost spoken, as she asks an almost imaginary audience of friends whether they too can see the beauty she sees in her dead lover. Belting isn't a good substitute for whispering. Was I wrong about Zander's affinity for Wagner?

But the second half was splendid. In music from Götterdämmerung that included Brünnhilde's final Immolation Scene, Zander and the orchestra clicked into focus. Siegfried's Death and his Funeral March were so moving, the audience wasn't sure whether applause was appropriate. Watson, despite some vocal unevenness, poured it on, soaring above the orchestra, as she must, and conveying the appropriate grandeur, rage, and tenderness of the former goddess about to throw herself on the funeral pyre of her beloved hero. The first half of the concert made me want to leave; the second half made me eager for more Zander Wagner.

Crossing the river into Cambridge, BSO assistant conductor Julian Kuerti led an engaging program for Collage New Music: three examples of French "spectralism" — music inspired by the microtonal sound layers revealed by computer analysis — and a staging of Peter Maxwell Davies's 1969 theatrical psychodrama Eight Songs for a Mad King. Tristan Murail's La barque mystique (1993) and Gerard Pesson's La gel, par jeu ("Frost, at Play," 1991) received their Boston premieres. The late Gerard Grisey's Talea (1986) was the most ambitious piece, but I preferred the Pesson, a delicate "parade of ghosts" in a suite of rhythmically lively and (in the composer's word) "jovial" dances-of-death (as in Saint-Saëns's Danse macabre). The chamber-ensemble work was exceptional.

I last saw the Eight Songs in 2004, when Stephen Drury's Callithumpian Consort presented a double bill of Maxwell Davies's demented single-character one-acters, with baritone Brian Church as the king. Church astonished me again — shrieking, screeching, bellowing, growling, chirping, retching, declaiming, talking, and, yes, singing — as George III, who suffered from appalling bouts of porphyria, a nervous disorder not then treatable.

Nathan Troup, who recently staged Church in the title roles of Say It Ain't So, Joe (he sang both Joe Biden and Joe the Plumber), demonstrated more effective stagecraft here, with Eric Fahlberg's elegant birdcages (made mostly out of music stands) "housing" each instrumentalist. It's a harrowing work, theatrically hair-raising and sometimes uncannily beautiful, filled with Maxwell Davies's characteristic spot-on parodies of musical styles from the 1520s to the 1920s. At one point, Church smashed Catherine French's violin (not her best instrument, I hope), and she returned, deadpan, with a broom to sweep up the pieces. It's startling to be reminded that Eight Songs was composed 40 years ago, when the avant-garde actually was avant-garde.

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