Turnage premiere spotlights program of hope with Harding, Boston Symphony

October 27, 2013
By David Wright

Daniel Harding conducted the BSO in the U.S. premiere of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s “Speranza” Thursday night at Symphony Hall. Photo: Stu Rosner

Whatever troubling things may have been going on in the world outside, Symphony Hall was enveloped in a pink cloud of hope and gratitude Thursday night, as the Boston Symphony Orchestra performed works by Mark-Anthony Turnage and Gustav Mahler that were steeped in those emotions.

And of course hope is the theme every time someone makes a debut or performs a premiere. Daniel Harding, a former Seiji Ozawa Fellow in conducting at Tanglewood, was appearing for the first time on the BSO podium Thursday, and Turnage’s piece, co-commissioned by that orchestra, was being heard for the first time in the United States.

Oh, and did we mention that the title of the Turnage work was Speranza (Hope)? Or that its four movements were named, respectively, “Amal,” “Hoffen,” “Dochas,” and “Tikvah,” which are the Arabic, German, Gaelic, and Hebrew words for…you guessed it.

The question remained, what does hope sound like in music? According to the composer, quoted in the program notes, his piece “shimmers a lot.” And so it did on Thursday, bursting on the listener in a blaze of high, bright, forward sound in strings, percussion and brass, which then simmered down to become an iridescent background for the movement’s sharply etched themes.

This composer has acknowledged his debt to Miles Davis and other jazz legends, and this movement reflected that by settling into blues-tinged harmonies and a walking tempo, which continued unchanged as the orchestra’s sound swelled to that of a big band in full wail.

According to Turnage, whose music is known for exploring the darker corners of human existence, this work began as a meditation on the suicides of well-known poets and writers, but evolved into something else entirely. Even so, he is quoted as saying, “I suspect the dark heart of the original still peeks through.”

It did more than peek in the opening of the second movement, in which dire bass-drum crescendos over loud chords alternated with the plaintive sound of the duduk, an Armenian wind instrument. Despite the movement’s German title, one couldn’t help thinking of recent American history, of terrible war waged from the air on rural people.

Probably it’s not possible to depict hope as a steady state, separate from the thing it’s up against. (One is reminded of the “peace museum” where the art works bristled with images of bullets, bombs, and damaged bodies.) In this movement, echoes of Shostakovich and Mahler could be heard in the dissonant chords that mocked the rustic melody and in the cognitive dissonance of dreamy strings in dialogue with jeering woodwinds.

Although this four-movement piece bore little resemblance to the symphonies of Haydn and Beethoven, it did feature a scherzo-like third movement. For Turnage, that meant indulging in Mahlerian swooping phrases for horns and the hot, on-the-town licks of that noted Mahler proponent, Leonard Bernstein. Jerky syncopations and the ping of xylophone and piano kept the music popping.

After all that excitement, Turnage called for some quiet time—not a despairing, expiring finale as in Tchaikovsky’s “Pathétique,” but something more, well, hopeful. A soprano saxophone intoned a nostalgic, Bartókian folk tune over a gently fluctuating orchestral background dotted with highlights of harp and percussion. It was a challenge to find direction and the long line in this steady-state music, at least until a long crescendo near the end turned a chorale melody up to a ripe fortissimo.

The music dwindled a little, then ended unexpectedly on a phrase from the duduk, mezzo forte. Caught off guard, the audience bestirred itself with enough courteous applause to bring conductor and composer back to the stage a couple of times.

Harding, who also led the world premiere of Speranza in London last February, appeared to have matters well in hand throughout, although it’s hard to tell, on a first hearing, what gems may have been left unmined in the score. Probably the third movement could have swung a little more, and the placid finale could have held the attention a little better. But overall, the composer’s appreciative gestures to the players onstage seemed well earned.

Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth) can hardly be said to spring from feelings of hope—when the composer wrote it, he had just received a diagnosis of incurable heart disease—and yet it is one of his most affirmative works. The dire news seemed to focus his mind on the beauty of life on the earth he would soon leave.

As with Turnage’s piece, and especially in light of the famous story in which a superstitious Mahler refuses to call any piece his “Ninth Symphony,” one is tempted to look for symphonic features in Das Lied. But other than some moments of thematic development in the orchestra, there is little here that marks this work as anything but a well-integrated song cycle.

That impression was reinforced Thursday night by the slightly tentative, not fully integrated sound of the orchestra, which even suffered some ensemble problems here and there. Harding was able only to make it a competent accompanist, not—at least until the climactic final song “Der Abschied”—a full partner in the drama.

Of the two vocal soloists, contralto Christianne Stotijn got the better of it, and not just because the great closing song was allotted to her. Tenor Michael Schade, evidently cast for his ability to be heard over Mahler’s bright, aggressive orchestra, accomplished that and more with an extremely piercing, focused tone, but one would gladly have traded some of that focus for more body in the sound—some tannins to balance the acid—and more flexible interpretation of the text. He was able, however, to turn on the charm a bit for the playful third song, “Von der Jugend.”

Stotijn brought to her three songs an attractive, buttery tone with a little breath in it, like the flute stop on an organ, and she artfully mixed straight notes with vibrato to shape the text. Although both she and Schade held printed scores, she relied on hers much less, and the better eye contact with the audience helped her to hold listeners’ attention during long stretches of soft singing.

In “Der Abschied,” with its long orchestral interlude, the BSO players began to sound like a Mahler orchestra at last, and to join in symphonic ensemble with Stotijn’s distinct yet blendable voice. It made a satisfying ending to a performance that seemed at times to offer more hope than results.

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