Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Beethoven goes baroque

Ludwig van with a manuscript sketch of the Seventh Symphony.
Boston is a funny little town in which the music press is absolutely determined to not tell the public the news. For years, the city has been bustling with early music activity, and by now it boasts three or four of the best period music organizations in America (H&H, the Boston Early Music Festival, Emmanuel Music and Boston Baroque). These days, it's widely recognized as probably the center of period performance in the country.

Yet most Bostonians are utterly innocent of this fact. They don't know anything about what probably counts as their hometown's major musical achievement of the last few decades. Because they're never told about it. Oh, the local press dutifully notes, and even reviews, the zillions of period music concerts that now dot the city's calendar. But they cover the scene the way they covered the build-up to the Iraq War - they dutifully record the detail, but resolutely refuse to connect the dots. By now, there should have been cover stories in the Globe, and of course a special on WGBH - which I know is a laughable proposition right there; WGBH doesn't give a damn about its home city's arts scene, we all know that. Its idea of "arts programming" is Jared trying to talk Emily into spending her beer money on the ballet!

Swaddled thus in blissful ignorance, Bostonians are happy to imagine their music scene is precisely what the local deep pockets tell them it is. In this la-la land, the BSO is the big, and indeed only, artistic game in town, and there an end. Now don't get me wrong; James Levine is a fantastic craftsman, and when he's around, the BSO sounds fabulous. It's very pretty - and oh my god the passion, etc.! We all know the drill - which doesn't change the fact that the BSO is a sideshow of the Met and essentially a showcase for the very best suburban music that educated money can buy.

Meanwhile the smart money goes elsewhere - and one place it goes is Boston Baroque, which last weekend essayed a program with the Big Kahuna of period music squarely in its sights - the program ended with Ludwig van's famous Seventh Symphony. Beethoven, to those unfamiliar, is both boundary and watershed for the early music movement. He stands at the cusp of the explosion in musical technology which essentially created the "modern" orchestra, just as he stood on the hinge between the classical and romantic periods. So does he belong in the modern or period musical camp?  Mainstream symphonies are loathe to give him up, as they've had to cede Handel, and Haydn, and even much of Mozart, to early music specialists. And yet I find over and over that the most exciting and revelatory Beethoven I hear is done on period rather than modern instruments.

So I was hoping for big things from Boston Baroque - and they mostly didn't disappoint, although conductor Martin Pearlman did get carried away with the whole "apotheosis of dance" thang that everybody likes to cite about the Seventh these days, and let the last two movements get repetitively loud and bangy. (This is probably in the notation, I know - but remember Beethoven was practically deaf by the time he wrote this symphony!) There was more exciting work early on - particularly in the first movement, in which Pearlman pulled off the strange trick of showing us how Beethoven slowly assembles his trademark sound from the different sections of the orchestra (in contrast, modern instruments, with their smooth, glossy surfaces, always blend too much into one another). And for once the rough edge of the natural horns sounded absolutely wonderful - indeed the lusty, raucous volleys from the brass resounded in Jordan Hall like the calls of post horns across the 19th-century countryside.

Beethoven wasn't the only big name on the program, though, which opened with Mozart's Symphony No. 33, a charming early work that the orchestra played with clean, elegant brio. The symphony all but brims with melodic ideas, and is lit by Mozart's youthful confidence, but its development isn't particularly challenging or even interesting - you get the feeling the young genius just didn't have time for that (and who can blame him?).

Pearlman returned to Beethoven for the evening's second highlight, the solo scene "Ah! perfido" sung by local gal-made-good Barbara Quintiliani (at left).  Ms. Quintiliani is blessed with a big, gorgeous voice that can be lusciously ripe one moment then thrillingly stern the next - which is perfect for "Ah! perfido," in which the soprano turns on a dime between condemning her faithless lover and pathetically begging for pity - or even his return.  Her later excerpts from Cherubini's “Medée," played less to that dichotomy, and were a little meandering too, and so were less gripping.  Even here, though, Quintiliani made a powerful impression - and left me longing to hear her in Verdi, where it seems her mix of emotional honey and intellectual authority might reach its greatest pitch.  We don't hear Verdi much in town these days, more's the pity - maybe some local opera company will catch Quintiliani and decide to change that.  At any rate, she deserves to be a bigger star, and something tells me someday she will be.

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