July 9-11, 2010
Boston Symphony Orchestra
Mozart, Serenade No. 6
Violin Concerto No. 5
Strauss, Ein Heldenleben
Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, conducting
Pinchas Zukerman, violin
After two meaty programs of Mahler and Beethoven, one wouldn't think that the Boston Symphony would spend a Sunday blowing their brains out with Strauss. One would be wrong. This isn't any old summertime classics festival: this is Tanglewood, the progeny of Serge Koussevitsky, the home of serious summer music. To begin a weekend in July with Mahler's Second and end with Strauss's Heldenleben is a challenge unto itself, and to execute it with such ease is truly extraordinary.
Ultimately, though, Sunday's program was the most disappointing of my weekend. The highlight came first with a tightly rustic performance of Mozart's Sixth Serenade, written for a handful strings and timpani. This wisp of a work features a slightly odd alteration between solo quartet and ensemble, a throwback to the high Baroque concerti grossi. Frühbeck endowed it with a lovely buoyancy, and Malcolm Lowe's light, airy violin fit the music like a glove.
If only Lowe had continued as a soloist through the rest of the program's first half. Pinchas Zukerman represents the worst kind of ambassador the classical world has to offer: the boring virtuoso. I cannot remember the last time I heard a critic praise Zukerman, who has played the same repertoire the same way at least since I've been alive. Although Zukerman has retained his trademark sweet sound and solid technique, he had not a single thing to say in Mozart's best violin concerto. It was bereft of musical ideas, without an ounce of spontaneity, and only interesting for the orchestra's elegant performance. His saccharine tone is tolerable for a short period of time, but no matter how great the music, it is difficult not to grow tired of such a monochromatic musical palette. The whole time, especially during his utterly perfunctory handling of the a la Turka fireworks of the last movement, I couldn't help but wish that the BSO had drawn upon their own concertmaster for the concerto.
Luckily, the BSO played their hearts out for Ein Heldenleben, the perfect music for a lazy Sunday afternoon. They almost made me like the piece, a considerable achievement. Strauss's sheer arrogance in the work is palpable throughout, and it represents perhaps the paramount example of when his tricky relationship between personal hubris and musical expertise tilted towards the former. It starts off well, with a dark-hued and Beethovenian opening. Strauss's gift for orchestration creates an almost organ-like sound, a teeming orchestral machine pulsing with life, which the BSO rendered in full Technicolor.
The problems begin with the second section, depicting the adversaries of "the hero." If it wasn't particularly obvious that the hero is Strauss, and the adversaries are his critics, then just wait for the parade of self-quotations in the later sections. Strauss takes the Romantic notion of the composer-as-hero, pioneered by Beethoven, a step too far. In the twisted, banal counterpoint of the "adversaries," Strauss is too literal---it is flawlessly programmatic but musically uninteresting. When I saw the fourth Harry Potter movie, five or six years after reading the book, I was disappointed in how little sense it made: because everyone in the audience knew the plot, the director focused on big action setpieces and left out any sense of cogent storytelling. Strauss does something similar, writing music that is artistically unsatisfying without a knowledge of the programmatic "events."
Through subsequent sections, the kitchen sink effect manifests itself, and Strauss's panoply of orchestral effects and hyper-Romanticism are overwhelmed by the sheer density of stuff. The piece brims over with ideas, but Strauss develops none clearly, instead insisting on his simplistic, triumphant narrative. The most ridiculous moments come in The Hero's Works of Peace, a fragmented, silly series of snapshots from Strauss's earlier works: self-quotation as self-glorification.
Frühbeck brought the same stern presence to the Strauss as he did to Saturday's Beethoven, and in some ways the performance seemed better than the piece itself. Although it wasn't the best way to conclude the weekend, it did show that the BSO, strictly musically speaking, may be in better shape than any other American orchestra. As Levine's relationship with the orchestra wavers, we can be confident in knowing that the Boston Symphony can still deliver.