Boston Symphony Orchestra/Levine in New York – Gunther Schuller Premiere

Bella mia fiamma, addio … Resta, o cara – Concert aria, K528
Idomeneo – Oh smania! oh furie! … D’Oreste, d’Aiace
Where the Word Ends [Boston Symphony Orchestra 125th-Anniversary commission: New York premiere]
Symphony No.2 in D, Op.73

Barbara Frittoli (soprano)

Boston Symphony Orchestra
James Levine

Reviewed by: Susan Stempleski

Reviewed: 9 February, 2009
Venue: Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City

Gunther SchullerThe 83-year-old American composer Gunther Schuller has enjoyed a long and close relationship with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. His ties to the orchestra go back to the early 1960s when he joined Aaron Copland as head of the composition program at Tanglewood Music Center, the BSO’s summer home. Schuller went on to become Artistic Director of Tanglewood from 1970 to 1984.

Where the Word Ends is the eleventh of his orchestral works to be played by the orchestra, and the third to be premiered by it (after Museum Piece in 1970, and Deaï for three orchestras in 1979).

The new work, a 125th-anniversary commission from the BSO and Music Director James Levine, was originally scheduled to premiere in the 2006-2007 season, on a program that featured music from Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé, along with a Mozart symphony and concerto. However, when Levine saw the completed score, he decided it would be better served in a different context, one that sets the piece off in complete contrast. The world premiere in Boston was postponed until the week before this Carnegie Hall concert, the programs identical.

Schuller’s colorful, symphonic-like piece is composed in a single movement about 25 minutes long and features four contrasting internal sections, two slow and two fast. The score calls for an enormous orchestra that took up all of Stern Auditorium’s huge stage. The work opens gently with softly trilling violins and gradually grows in intensity to a tumultuous conclusion (the “grand convulsion” marked in the score) before a reflective Adagio featuring tender melodies played by the strings. The lower strings provide a steady rhythm in the Scherzo while bursts of insistent jazzy figures move throughout the different orchestral sections. The work culminates in a deeply sonorous Allegro vivace section marked by an abundance of huge chords.

James LevineThe program opened with an inspired performance of Mozart’s concert-aria “Bella mia fiamma, addio!” (My dearest love, farewell!) by soprano Barbara Frittoli. Mozart composed this turbulent and technically challenging piece in 1787 on a text from Niccolò Jommelli’s opera “Cerere placata” (Ceres Appeased), based on the myth of Proserpina and her mortal lover, Titano. Singing with radiant clarity, Frittoli masterfully conveyed Titano’s anguish at his separation from Proserpina (the “bella fiamma” of the text).

Frittoli followed up with an equally effective rendition of “Oh smania! Oh furie! … D’Oreste, d’Aiace” (Oh frenzy! Oh furies! … The torments of Orestes and Ajax), Elletra’s recitative and ‘rage aria’ from “Idomeneo”. Mozart eliminated the aria from the 1781 Munich premiere because the production was running too long. To preserve dramatic integrity he expanded the recitative from five to fifteen lines. Nowadays, the expanded version usually introduces the aria, as was the case in this performance. The scene is near the end of the opera. The desperate Elletra, in love with Idamante, Idomeneo’s son who is betrothed to the Trojan princess Ilia, resolves to join her brother Orestes in hell and remain there “in everlasting woe, in eternal weeping”. Frittoli sang with great power and clarity, getting deep into the vengeful fury of Elletra and bringing out all the drama of the piece.

The program ended with a vivid, perfectly focused performance of Brahms’s Second Symphony, warmly expansive in the first movement, vigorous and dramatic in the finale. The Adagio was richly expressive, and the Allegretto perfectly graceful.

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