Monday, October 20, 2014

Dancing on Lear's grave; or, Blow, winds! And pass the popcorn!

Joseph Marcell rages in King Lear.

The touring production of King Lear that Shakespeare's Globe opened last week at ArtsEmerson (where it plays through this Thursday) proved a true rarity: an unsatisfying production that nevertheless trailed paradoxical critical questions in its wake.

Not that many critics had any doubts about the show. In New York, Isherwood sniffed, and in Boston, Aucoin sadly shook his head. Neither gentleman could be mistaken for an intellectual, of course - nor would they want to be! - but egg-headed mandarins like Bill Marx were for once in accord with the mainstream mavens. This, they agreed, was a Lear largely undone by its performance style.

Sadly, though, none of these writers seemed aware of the internal contradiction at the bottom of their mutual position - roughly, that Shakespeare's tragedy wasn't done justice by the theatre of its day.

A proposition which is somehow not entirely convincing. (And almost certainly arrogant.) At the very least, I'd argue that any critic should (indeed, must) engage with the questions raised by a company's performance style before simply dismissing it.

But then I'm rather in sympathy with this particular company's mission - which I take as an attempt to connect with the public by re-invigorating the populist energy of the Elizabethan stage. For of course Shakespeare was enormously popular in his day, when his plays were generally performed in bright sunlight, before crowds much like the ones that today fill the bleachers at Fenway Park.  

But how does one reconcile the Elizabethan equivalent of hotdogs and popcorn with the intricacies of Shakespeare's verse, the unparalleled subtlety of his insights, and the thematic complexity of his construction?

It's a question most scholars have simply ignored - but which Shakespeare's Globe openly embraces. Although unlike the avatars of original practices in early music, this company only ventures halfway down its declared artistic path.  Yes, they ignore Wagner's innovation of dimming the house lights; and their actors openly interact with the audience before (and sometimes during) the show. Players also often double roles, and are expected to be able to sing, play an instrument, and even dance - indeed the company often concludes a performance (even a tragic one, like Lear) with a jig, just as the Elizabethans did. Still, as far as I know, female roles are not played by teen-aged boys on their London stage (although the company has often dabbled with cross-dressing), and questions of Elizabethan accent, rhyme, and rhythm are given scant attention.

So what Shakespeare's Globe is offering is a millennial revision of the Elizabethan experience rather than the thing itself.  But even within those limits, its tricks and tropes are often jarring.  Many critics, for instance, could not abide a King Lear that ended with many recently-deceased characters rising from the stage to join hands and cut a rug.  Somehow, these reviewers declared, this utterly compromised the tragic grandeur of the text.

Only scholars agree that's how the Bard himself did it. So Isherwood, Aucoin and Marx are basically saying that Shakespeare didn't know how to stage his own play.

Times do change: the Victorian view of Lear - John Gilbert's "Cordelia in the Court of King Lear"

And again, that's - well, a hypothesis, I suppose. A vulgar one, but still a hypothesis. A stronger case might be made that Shakespeare would have done away with certain Elizabethan stage traditions if he'd been able to - but even that is pure conjecture, and at least partly answered by the high probability that Shakespeare styled his scripts to match the resources and context available. (And remember that Shakespeare was not only resident author at the Globe, but also a supporting actor - so he may well have personally tripped the light fantastic after Hamlet and Lear).

This is an amusing thought - so it's no surprise Shakespeare's Globe is unafraid of embracing rueful bemusement in its tragic style. And yes, its actors do mix with the audience, much like their Elizabethan forbears, and throw themselves into multiple roles (sometimes in a single scene) with often no more disguise than a sly wink. They also play instruments, sing when necessary, and work the stage machinery in full view.  

But the idea isn't to ape (or anticipate) the alienation of Brecht; it is instead to openly conjure Shakespeare's music the way actual music is conjured by musicians who may be wearing anything, and performing anywhere, and can in no way be mistaken for the art they create. Thus there's no fourth wall at the Globe, no attempt at illusionism, and the actors are always actors rather than characters. Oddly, the ultimate effect of all this is almost anti-Brechtian - Elizabethan practices are far more ingratiating than alienating; they invite the audience to identify not only with the story but also with its performers. There's something about this that scrambles the postmodern critical consensus - and not just about Shakespeare, but about theatre in general.

Bethan Cullinane as Cordelia.  Photos: Ellie Kurtz.
And while many reviewers claimed that the concluding dance of this Lear negated its tragic impact, I wasn't so sure. Remembering one of Edgar's famous lines from the heath ("The worst is not, so long as we can say, This is the worst,") I wondered whether joining hands after Lear's passing didn't so much erase his loss as make it bearable (it's perhaps telling that Nahum Tate rewrote this most harrowing of endings after Elizabethan stage practices had been lost). T.S. Eliot famously believed that "humankind cannot bear very much reality," and it's quite possible Shakespeare was of the same opinion - and so afforded his audience some solace after their terrible glimpse into the abyss.

Still, the critics were on firmer ground when they pointed out that this Lear plumbed few harrowing depths prior to that final foxtrot. In the lead role, Joseph Marcell offered a bemusedly eccentric, sometimes overly-literal Lear - which began to click in his humble final speeches, but limned little of the harsh road to that humility.  Likewise Gwendolen Chatfield and Shanaya Rafaat made a superficial pair of evil sisters (although Rafaat found an intriguingly childish glee in Regan's sadism).  Bethan Cullinane brought more depth to Cordelia (at left), but her doubling as the Fool threw off few psychological or metaphoric sparks. 

The supporting men were better - sometimes far better. John Stahl's flinty Gloucester was the standout - his blind stumbles on the heath were heart-rending, and the tricky scene of his attempted suicide was completely gripping. Meanwhile, as his wronged son Edgar, the striking Alex Mugnaioni always seemed on the verge of a coherent interpretation without ever quite forging one (tellingly, his take on Poor Tom was likewise fluttery and peripatetic). A bit better was Daniel Pirrie's sallowly charming Edmund - although the performance didn't quite have the vicious snap it should; Pirrie was actually stronger in his snippy turn as Oswald.

In the end, then, the best criticism of this production is that director Bill Buckhurst didn't really trust Elizabethan stage conventions enough. My gut is that they can withstand more tragedy than he was willing to risk; I'm sure houselights and doubled roles and singing and dancing can successfully co-exist with far more intense and committed performances than were elicited here. (Indeed, a dance toward sunlight from the darkest depths of despair could be an unforgettable theatrical coup.) In their last visit, Shakespeare's Globe brought us a brilliantly staged Elizabethan take on Hamlet - perhaps the Bard's most bitterly witty tragedy. Lear, however, is a very different theatrical animal. In a way, its terrible pathos may represent Shakespeare's greatest challenge to the Globe's ethos - i.e., to his own ethos.  Let's hope that in their next production, they dare to truly take up that gauntlet.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Really, Sebastian? Really?

Titan's Venus of Urbino

Today's Globe features an essay from critic Sebastian Smee (sorry, it might be behind a pay wall) on the greatest art in New England - which is unfortunately burdened with a boomer-rock-band title ("Simply the Best"). Smee's list of the 50 finest works residing in our region, though orthodox, is certainly solid (mine wouldn't be much different). But he does make one mind-boggling claim about halfway through his piece:

The Shepherds of the Portinari Altarpiece
" . . . I want to remind people how incredibly blessed we are in this part of the world when it comes to great painting. The list here is as good, I believe, as a comparable list would be almost anywhere else in the world.  Only Paris, New York, and London might have an edge, and that is by no means certain."


Really, Sebastian - really?  Paris, New York and London might have an edge?

I mean, sure, "Go Sox!" But - really? You're going to put the MFA, Gardner, Yale and Harvard up against the Louvre and d'Orsay? Or the Tates, the National Gallery, and everything else in London? Ditto the Met, Frick, MOMA and the Guggenheim, et al., in New York?

Okay - why not! But I just got back from Florence - as Hub Review readers know - which is a little bit smaller than London, Paris or New York. And here's my list of the greatest paintings I saw there, in alphabetical order by artist:

Botticelli - The Birth of Venus, La Primavera
Caravaggio - Sacrifice of Isaac, Bacchus, Medusa
da Vinci - The Annunciation, Adoration of the Magi
della Francesca - Portraits of the Duke & Duchess of Urbino
Fabriano - Adoration of the Magi
Gentileschi - Judith and Holofernes
Giotto - Ognissanti Madonna
Uccello - Battle of San Romano
Lippi - Madonna and Child with Two Angels

Raphael's Madonna del Granduca
Michelangelo - Donni Tondo
Raphael - Madonna of the Goldfinch
Rubens - Portrait of Isabella Brandt
Titian - Venus of Urbino
van der Goes - Portinari Altarpiece
van der Weyden - Lamentation of Christ
Velazquez - Self-Portrait
Verrocchio - Baptism of Christ

Oops, those twenty are actually all in one gallery - the Uffizi.

And I hate to say it, but at least half of them are better than anything we have in New England (although the very greatest we have here belongs in their company). 

Meanwhile, over at the Palazzo Pitti, there are-

Raphael - Madonna del Granduca (at left), Madonna della SeggiolaPortrait of Agnolo Doni, Woman with a Veil
Titian - Christ the Redeemer
van Dyck - Cardinal Guido Bentivoglio
Verrocchio - Saint Jerome

And there are incredible frescoes all over town:

Fra Angelico - the frescoes of San Marco monastery
Ghirlandaio - Life of St. Francis, Santa Trinita
Giotto - the Bardi and Peruzzi Chapels, Basilica di Santa Croce
Gozzoli - Procession of the Magi, the Medici Palace
Masaccio - the Brancacci Chapel (with Lippi), and the Trinity in Santa Maria Novella
Pontormo - The Deposition from the Cross, Santa Felicita (detail below)

Pontormo, Deposition from the Cross

Again, all of these are as good as, and most are better (or just more important) than, anything we have in New England. 

Some of the sculpture in Florence.
And I haven't even mentioned the sculpture.

So let's get real, shall we?  Or do I need to catalogue the Louvre, too?  Seriously.  

Of course I love New England, and the MFA and our other museums. We are truly lucky to have an abundance of great art at our collective doorstep.

I'll go a little further: the case Smee could have (and should have) made is that here in New England - through a constellation of several great institutions - we have access to one of the broadest art collections in the world. Between the old masters in the Gardner and the impressionists and Americans at the MFA and Clark, and the modernists and random gems scattered elsewhere, there is a remarkable breadth of high art on display in New England. Few regions anywhere could match our range: there are wonderful samples of almost every period of "Western" art available, along with major collections of Asian art. And if you do throw in New York (which is only a brief train ride away), we're in art heaven.

Of course Paris and London could still have an edge.

But Florence sure doesn't.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

H&H rocks its 200th

Photo: James Doyle

In case you haven't heard, our own Handel and Haydn Society is now 200.

As in years old.

Which makes it the oldest continuously active performing arts organization in the country - and one of the most venerable in the world.  H&H is so old, in fact, that they once commissioned a work from Beethoven himself (alas, the great man died before writing it). At about the same time, they premiered Messiah and The Creation - by their two namesakes - in the New World (later they introduced America to Verdi's Requiem and Bach's St. Matthew Passion). They sang at the memorial service for Thomas Jefferson, and raised their voices again when slavery fell (with Ralph Waldo Emerson onstage as orator; Julia Ward Howe soon joined the chorus) as well as at the death of Abraham Lincoln. In fact when Symphony Hall opened its doors, H&H had been around for 85 years.

But you'd never have guessed its age from the way the Society kicked up its heels last weekend - indeed, it often seemed as spry as a newborn. First there was a fête for friends and donors - with a surprise announcement that the Society was well on its way (as in $9 million on its way) toward a $12 million fundraising goal (which is wildly ambitious for the period music scene). Then there was a celebratory concert, played to a packed Symphony Hall, and aptly named "Baroque Fireworks" - which included showpieces for both the period orchestra and chorus, as well as opportunities to shine for the Young Men's Chorus and Young Women's Chamber Choir from the Society's Vocal Arts Program.

All this perhaps proved more a pastiche of the baroque era's greatest hits than a thematically coherent program. But no one seemed to care much, and generally the selections all spoke to an appropriate sense of occasion (in a nice touch, a sentimental novelty from the Society's early years, John Stevenson's "They play'd, in air the the trembling music floats," was given an airing, too). And things certainly got off to a rousing start, with the clarion call of trumpets sounding from the balcony for a Monteverdi toccata from Orfeo.

But there were a few false notes among the many pleasing ones. The orchestra didn't achieve the subtly swimming build of Handel's "Zadok the Priest" (although the assembled choral forces of both the Society and its youth program gave this most famous of coronation anthems a satisfyingly mighty blast).  And later, the equally famous "Music for the Royal Fireworks" seemed to sputter after another crackling start (although the final minuet pulled together nicely).

Under conductor Harry Christopher's subtle hand, however, the Society's professional chorus was in superb shape (as always), and did full, luminous justice to the rising complexity of the great Bach motet "Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied"("Sing to the Lord a new song"). They later sounded equally fine in "Worthy is the Lamb" from Messiah - although they perhaps played second fiddle in the second half of the program to a striking rendition of "Summer" from Vivaldi's Four Seasons, led with authority by the Society's popular concert mistress, Aisslinn Nosky.

With her fiery locks (which seem to burn with her passion for playing) Ms. Nosky has become almost an emblem for the orchestra. With whom (as was clear from this performance) she has built a respectful and affectionate bond - for the H&H players followed her all over the map, in what amounted to a freshly compelling reading of this Vivaldi warhorse.

Ms. Nosky seems to always be about extremity - wild speeds, sudden halts and stark contrasts are her trademarks; and she's unafraid, while in the throes of a particular passage, to emit the occasional squeak or squawk. To be honest, I've sometimes found her style more showy than substantive - but she was definitely on to something about Vivaldi's vision of storm clouds rising in an empty summer sky. She swung thrillingly from soft stillness and breezy sighs - punctuated by the drone of the occasional dragonfly - to sudden, thrashing downpours and orchestral crashes. What's more, she held the audience in the palm of her hand throughout: if she entered the stage a star, she left a supernova.

The program soon closed with perhaps its most appealing touch: an audience sing-along to Handel's "Hallelujah Chorus," which left everyone beaming with joy (and of course we stood for it!).  This then led to many cheers, and much stomping of feet - although, alas, no chorus of "Happy Birthday" - but maybe that's coming!  For everyone left in high spirits, looking forward to a 200th season full of concerts as sweet as this one.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Introverted Verdi from BLO

Michael Wade Lee woos Anya Matanovic at a pivotal moment of La Traviata.

Somewhere, I suppose, the curtain is always rising on La Traviata - and no wonder, as it's blessed with one of Verdi's most ravishing scores, which aligns superbly with a remarkably resonant libretto (derived by Francesco Maria Piave from La Dame aux camélias). Boston Lyric Opera claims to have held off from staging it for a decade (rare indeed among opera companies!), so hopes ran high for its return to Boston last weekend (it plays through Sunday at the Schubert).

The opera's fans may be surprised to discover, however, that BLO has eschewed the opulence that became the default mode for Traviata after the wild success of Franco Zeffirelli's over-the-top stagings at the Met. Instead, the BLO team offers a thoughtfully rendered, more delicately scaled vision of Verdi's decadent demi-monde and its doomed Violetta, who sacrifices everything for love not once, but twice.

Indeed, perhaps the director and designer have over-thought things a bit (more on that later); but BLO has certainly been lucky in the rising star they've found to play Verdi's fallen woman. Luminous soprano Anya Matanovic is blessed with a voice that more than matches her entrancing beauty: perhaps a bit hushed at the bottom, it nevertheless blooms to a glowing bouquet of color as it rises. What's more, Matanovic has the effortless emotional presence of a born actress - and endows her Violetta with not only a passionate inner life but a convincing emotional integrity (which is a good thing, as she contemplates each and every romantic decision at length, and with utter candor).

So Matanovic's introspective Violetta is exquisite - the rub, I'm afraid, lies in the object of her affection. Much of the power of La Traviata's plot depends on the emotional mystique of its hero, the callow Alfredo, whose love must be noble enough to draw Violetta from her life of freedom and ease, yet also conceal a vengefully immature streak. And certainly tenor Michael Wade Lee is an appealing singer - with a pleasing glint of bel canto sun in his upper register - who seemed to commit to the role more and more as the opera progressed; still, at this stage of his career he simply lacks the passionate complexity required to credibly spark the unfolding disaster of the plot.

The production sometimes struggled with that gap, but elsewhere the news was better: baritone Weston Hurt proved eloquent - both vocally and emotionally - as Alfredo's father, and there were fine minor turns from local stalwarts David Kravitz and David Cushing (along with the always-reliable BLO chorus). And I generally liked the grand-but-tender sounds I heard guest conductor Arthur Fagen teasing from the orchestra down in the pit. Together with Matanovic, these talents might have been enough to put this Traviata over the top.

Violetta nears her desperate end. Photos by Eric Antoniou.

But alas, I sometimes found myself distracted from their achievement by the direction and set. Designer Julia Noulin-Mérat is clearly a talent to watch, and has a way with strong, simple statements.  The glitter of the Act I party, for instance, was conveyed with a single, looming painting (in the designer's most striking coup, it disappeared from its frame after Violetta's ruin).  Likewise the heroine's country idyll was suggested by a solitary tree, the gaming table of the third act was a vast circle that all but spanned the stage, and the dressing gown of the heroine's final hours became an impossibly long shroud (above). Together, these strokes suggested an incipient loneliness that's actually quite appropriate to poor Violetta's plight - although very far from the gaudy stylings of the likes of Zeffirelli.

Still, I sometimes found myself musing more on the mise-en-scène than the story.  It didn't help that director Chas Rader-Shieber threw a strangely listless opening party, and then conjured a third-act debauch that played like out-takes from Eyes Wide Shut (which all but undid, for a time, the production's contemplative tone). Oh, well - Matanovic shone like a beacon through all of this, and even connected with Wade Lee in a deep way during her heartbreaking farewell. A great Traviata is more than a showcase for its leading lady, of course - but honestly, sometimes that feels like enough.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Knocking on Stalin's door with the Imaginary Beasts

Michael Underhill (I think) and Joey Pelletier in Knock!. Photos: Roger Metcalf

With the passing of the late, lamented Whistler in the Dark, Imaginary Beasts became the leading (perhaps the only!) intellectual light on Boston's theatre scene. Which Beastmaster Matthew Woods seems to have almost taken as a call to arms - for his latest, Knock!: The Daniil Kharms Project (through this weekend only at the BCA) proves one of his most challenging efforts to date.

Just as this particular writer may count as one of his most obscure choices of author ever: the Russian Kharms (a pseudonym, btw, for Daniil Ivánovich Yuvatchov) has only recently begun to be widely known in the West. The avant-garde collective he founded, "OBERIU" (roughly "The Union for Real Art"), flourished briefly in the 1920's, with anarchic, circus-like performances and a devotion to dadaist non-sense. But both founder and movement ran afoul of Stalinist authoritarianism in the decade to come: Kharms was arrested in 1931, endured a period of exile, and returned to an atmosphere of intense pressure from official censors. He retreated to children's literature, but was eventually re-arrested and confined to a psychiatric ward in Leningrad in 1941; during the long siege of that city, he perished (apparently of starvation) in his cell.  Friends saved a suitcase stuffed with his work - which would only begin to be published decades after his death.

It's a grim story, surely, so it's no surprise that this time around, the Beasts' familiar deconstructive whimsy has a grotesque, almost cruel edge. Although this hardly obscures what drew Woods to Kharms: the innocent irrationality of children - and their charmingly unstable attempts to make imaginative sense of the world - have always been one of his key artistic concerns. And Kharms, in his parallel career, was a highly successful children's writer; but he was a child who took more glee in destruction than deconstruction: this author wanted to break things - and not just Socialist Realism (understandably enough) but most all language, and meaning, too; Kharms wants to "escape" from everything, the better to truly experience things in themselves. Thus there's little long-form work by him available, even now; his oeuvre is mostly "micro-prose" - quirky juxtapositions, suggestive situations, and the seeming buds of stories crack apart before our eyes, again and again.

Woods and the Beasts - with the help of dramaturg Matthew McMahan - have nevertheless attempted to conjure from these shards a full evening of theatre (from a punchy translation by Irina Yakubovskaya)  - and by and large they succeed: Knock! is more often than not fascinating, and as with any Beasts show, it constantly beguiles the eye (if this time in a rough-hewn way).  The gaggle of red-nosed clowns (in Soviet coats) who sometimes embody the state, and sometimes the lower classes, and sometimes just the wind - are only one of many brilliant strokes. Costumer Cotton Talbot-Minkin is in high form throughout - as always - and the set design (by Woods and Christopher Bocchiaro) is apt (a dozen doors to knock on, or down), while Bocchiaro's lighting design is always imaginative.

And the performances - by many familiar denizens of the Bestiary - hold to a similarly high standard. I won't soon forget William Schuller's inspired contortions around, upon, and under his writing table, or Joey Pelletier's sallowly menacing "Watchman," or the way in which Michael Underhill manages to poignantly commit suicide with only a chair. Other performances are almost mysterious in their confident minimalism - how exactly, for instance, does Molly Kimmerling manage to grip us as the cryptic Babushka, who never really says anything that makes any sense at all?  I've no idea - but somehow she does.

It must be admitted, however, that the Beasts have sometimes relied on Kharms' own story to shape their work in a way that defies his anarchic ideals. The fateful suitcase that saved his legacy makes many an appearance, for instance - and the soulful Michael Chodos (at left), as an apparent Kharms factotum, more than once trudges across the stage against a bitter wind. Not that I minded these interpolations - but I wondered what Kharms might have thought of them. I also sometimes felt that the visuals (brilliant as they were) had been conceived in an absurdist rearview mirror - with scraps of Beckett and Ionesco clinging to, and familiarizing, their wilder, woolier ancestor.

But these are only quibbles with what counts as a triumph against long odds.  Would any of our larger theatres had half the daring or imagination of Imaginary Beasts!! Sigh - no, I'm not going to hold my breath waiting for that to happen; but in the meantime, thoughtful Hub theatergoers will not want to miss Knock!, or indeed any of the Beasts' remarkable escapades.

Monday, October 13, 2014

A statement

My postings about the now closed Opera Boston on the Hub Review, like all my postings, are purely an avocation, not a vocation.  I am not compensated for what I write. I rather write in the hope of sharing information and ideas with others.  Against the advice of others, I don't accept advertising and don't provide links to "bounties" from e-commerce sites.  Often I express opinions, and often I express facts.  Almost always, I get it right.

In comments posted on January 15-19, 2012 and on September 21, 2013, in regard to Randolph Fuller, I expressed opinions which were speculative, some of which have since been shown to be untrue. I did not have all the facts, and indeed I still don't.  I believe I therefore owe Mr. Fuller a retraction and an apology, which I am hereby making, in an effort to make amends and to undo some of the harm inflicted on a person who has been a dedicated and generous patron of the arts for many decades in Boston.  Here is the background:

Opera Boston, a company which Mr. Fuller was instrumental in founding, collapsed at the end of December, 2011. (Mr. Fuller was not a director or officer at the time, but was the company's largest donor.) Publicly available sources, including a statement of the Opera Boston Board released to the press on January 3, 2012, state that the demise of Opera Boston was a direct result of the fact that the company faced an insurmountable burden of current liabilities and future obligations.  According to the final auditor's total, these amounted to more than $1 million.

Other commentators and I suggested at the time that Mr. Fuller caused the demise of Opera Boston.  For my part, partially based on reportage in the Boston Globe, I speculated that Mr. Fuller withheld his financial support at this critical juncture, perhaps out of spite, leaving subscribers in the lurch.

Mr. Fuller has since shown that he was a generous contributor throughout the tenure of Carole Charnow, the longstanding General Director of Opera Boston, and even more so during 2011 when Lesley Koenig, Ms. Charnow's successor, was in office.  Moreover once the decision to close Opera Boston was made by the Board at the end of 2011, Mr. Fuller contributed generously in 2012 to assure that staff and subscribers were largely reimbursed in the months following the collapse of the company.

I was unfair to Mr. Fuller in two other respects.  First, I said that it appeared he had conducted a "putsch" against Lesley Koenig.  Second, I pointed out that prior to the collapse of Opera Boston, he had apparently withdrawn his support from two previous enterprises, and inferred he might do so again in the future.  I have no evidence, however, to prove these statements and the resulting inference that he might likewise withdraw his support from other non-profits he is currently supporting or may support in future, and I acknowledge that these inferences are hurtful.

For these reasons, I am therefore withdrawing my posts from January 2012 and September 2013, and, as I said, I am apologizing to Mr. Fuller.

My hope looking forward is to continue to support the Boston arts community and to encourage its growth.  The only way to achieve that goal is for all opera enthusiasts, Mr. Fuller and myself included, to remain steadfast in our belief that Boston is made better by the arts.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Pollini fulfills his promise

Photo: Robert Torres

Boston has been waiting a long time to hear Maurizio Pollini; it has been nearly four years, I think, since his last concert date here (he canceled a few due to illness, and has reportedly reduced his current schedule to conserve his strength). So you could feel an eager anticipation all but brimming in the crowd that filled Symphony Hall last weekend for his Celebrity Series appearance. And it was no surprise that the huzzahs and bravos started early - perhaps too early - for this much-loved Italian master, whose program opened with Schumann but soon centered on Chopin.

Not that Pollini didn't charm from his first appearance.  He looked slightly frail, but determined, from his first steps onto the Symphony stage; and throughout the concert he evinced a sense of gallant dismissal of any concerns over his well-being.  We were here to hear the music, he was there to serve it - that was all; an attitude much in keeping with the civilized control that has long been the hallmark of this elegant romanticist (who's also a modernist, classicist - and impressionist).

And to tell true, his touch has lost none of its storied sophistication; Pollini can still call forth trumpets from the keyboard, or coax it into showers of pearls (he travels with a remarkably responsive Steinway customized by craftsman Angelo Fabbrini). And rhythmically, Pollini still renders his ruminative passages with a subtle syncopation that I think will always fascinate.

What he couldn't do last Sunday was hang onto these qualities at the speeds he brought to his Schumann - or at least the passages of the demanding Kreisleriana inspired by "Florestan" (Schumann's impetuous alter ego, who vies with the introverted "Eusebius" in much of his work).  Pollini was on firmer footing with the tender rendering of the familiar Arabesque (Op. 18) that opened his program, although even here he teased with tethered energies only barely kept in check.

He let the reins slip entirely in Kreisleriana (Schumann's landmark psycho-musical profile, supposedly of the imaginary composer Kreisler, a character from E.T.A. Hoffmann, but actually, as usual, of himself).  Which was to be expected to some degree, as the composer labels every other movement as agitated, lively or fast; but Pollini couldn't keep up with the pace of his own Florestan, as it were; too many notes were lost, and the tricky intricacy of some cascading passages became a scampering blur. Eusebius remained in fine, softly haunting shape, it's true; but the overall effect of Schumann's convoluted portrait was a muddy one, and I found myself in a trouble state of mind at intermission.

Pollini's turn to Chopin, however, marked the return of his mastery. The interpretation of this greatest of pianist-composers has always been one of his specialties, and decades of exploration were evident in his delineation of subtle architectures, and the sense of balanced development unfolding through contradictory episodes. And the sophistication that sometimes shone in the Schumann here acquired a tragic weight - or at least it did in Pollini's gripping reading of the Second Sonata, which featured a Marche funèbre whose relentless, devastated grandeur was poignantly fresh in his confident hands.

One triumph then followed another. The beloved Berceuse was particularly inspired - gentle gusts of feeling seemed to rock its familiar cradle with an affectionate ebb and flow, as Pollini sprinkled arpeggios over the murmuring melody like so many kisses. In a very different key, the familiar Polonaise in A-flat Major proved rousingly epic: its stammered fanfares were clarion - with Pollini all but bouncing on the bench during their commanding returns - and the rushing octaves of its "locomotive" interlude - this time clear and controlled - evinced a powerful sense of history's unstoppable momentum.

The crowd understandably went wild for this tour de force - and I had to agree; taken together, these pieces amounted to the most heart-breaking Chopin I may have ever heard in performance. And happily enough, like many an old master, Pollini had a series of ravishing encores up his sleeve: a gorgeous Nocturne in D-flat major (Op. 27, No. 1), followed by a brilliant Scherzo No. 3 in C-sharp minor (Op. 39), arrived in short order, like gifts. The crowd called the pianist back to the stage again and again, but this time Pollini only took a humble bow, the promise of his mastery once more fulfilled.