Le tombeau de Couperin
Dream of the Song [Boston Symphony Orchestra co-commission: NY premiere]
Symphonie fantastique, Op.14
Bejun Mehta (countertenor)
Boston Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Susan Stempleski
Reviewed: 2 March, 2017
Venue: Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City
Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony Orchestra capped off their three-night engagement at Carnegie Hall with this splendidly conceived program including the New York premiere of George Benjamin’s Dream of the Song, which evokes the style of the French impressionists and of Benjamin’s teacher, Olivier Messiaen.
The concert opened with a refined and elegant account of Le tombeau de Couperin – originally a six-movement suite for piano, from which Ravel orchestrated four – and familiar territory for the BSO: only nine months after its first performance in Paris, the orchestra played it in November 1920 under Pierre Monteux and has given it frequently, including in 1928 conducted by the composer. The BSO woodwinds, harp and strings all provided plenty to enjoy, but best of all was the clarion tone of John Ferrillo’s oboe, especially in the fetchingly graceful ‘Menuet’.
George Benjamin’s Dream of the Song (2015), written for Bejun Mehta, was given its first outing by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra under the composer’s direction. The six short movements juxtapose Mehta’s singing of English translations of poems by the eleventh-century Jewish scholars Solomon ibn Gabirol and Shmuel HaNagid, both of whom lived in Spain, with fragments of poems by the twentieth-century writer Federico García Lorca sung in Spanish by a female chorus. All six texts were inspired by casidas and ghazals – Arabic poetic forms that flourished for centuries in Granada – that focus on themes of love and death and teem with imagery of stars and moonlight. Benjamin’s music is by turns melancholy, eerie, alluring and combative, using the countertenor to extraordinarily vivid effect – as in his 2012 opera, Written on Skin. Mehta’s thrilling and commanding singing contrasted and merged eloquently with the nine women of the Lorelei Ensemble, while the BSO brought out the colors and shimmering harmonies of Benjamin’s challenging music.
The concert ended with a remarkably spontaneous performance of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique that was rich with life. The first movement displayed an unusually expressive freedom, the waltz of ‘A Ball’ wonderfully elegant, the ‘Scene in the Country’ highly atmospheric, and the final two movements full of excitement and drama. The marvelous intensity was edge-of-seat stuff and the close electrifying.