BSO Finale: Happy Aether

Baiba Skride, Andris Nelsons & the BSO
(photo: Robert Torres)

It was a fitting finale for the Boston Symphony Orchestra this weekend as they performed, once again under Conductor and Music Director Andris Nelsons, a triplet of works that show the broad spectrum of its musical accomplishments, from the familiar to the unknown. They included the well-known and beloved Till Eulenspeigel's Merry Pranks and the even more classic piece Petrushka as fitting bookends to the presentation of the world premiere of local composer Sebastian Currier's Aether.

The ultimate curtain raiser, Richard Strauss' Till Eulenspeigel, based on an actual living person who became a folk hero in medieval Germany, is portrayed in the music as a prankster, beginning with the famous (and famously difficult) part that has become a frequent warm-up exercise for horn players, here delivered exquisitely by Richard Sebring. When properly delivered, this is a true audience pleaser, officially identified as Till Eulenspeigel's Merry Pranks, After the Old Rogue's Tale, Set in Rondo Form for Large Orchestra, Opus 28. It's Strauss at his funniest and most lively, an entertaining ride that features the title character in arguments with the clergy and riding a horse through a crowded marketplace. His name alone should be a give-away, as it translates roughly as “owl in a mirror”, signifying his role as one who revenges himself opposite the haughty bourgeoisie and clergy of the time. He was originally consider by Strauss as the focus of an opera but ultimately described in this tone poem which he first presented on May 6, 1895, 124 years ago this week. It was wonderfully conducted and played, setting the stage for for the brand new concerto by Currier.

This concerto for violin and orchestra, with the intriguing title of Aether, is not the first work by this composer to be co-commissioned by the BSO (with the Gewandhaus Orchestra of Leipzig) but it's the first to be composed specifically for a particular violinist, Latvian Baiba Skride. Thus it was doubly compelling to hear it played by the violinist herself, to be replicated later this month in Leipzig, subsequently in its European premiere in Spain, then on to China and Japan. That mysterious title references the substance (invisible to the naked eye) that in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was thought to be what pervaded all the universe between celestial bodies, as Currier notes in the program: this “still lingers on as a term referring to something remote, mysterious, invisible and out of reach”. The four movements of his concerto are said to be embedded in the orchestral “aether” music; it may be seen as two musical pieces, a complete concerto and a separate musical environment of ethereal music that envelops the concerto. It was well received on first hearing and may be expected to become part of the BSO's repertoire.

The final work in this ultimate program of the BSO's season was the familiar piece by Igor Stravinsky, known as “Petrushka”, Burlesque in Four Scenes. It was his second successful composition for Sergei Diaghilev's Ballet Russes (after his Firebird but before his Rite of Spring). Originally intended to be a sort of concerto for piano (which retains a large role in this 1947 revised form), it evolved into this witty treatment of the hysterically joyful celebrants of a Russian Shrovetide (an archaic designation for Mardi Gras at the beginning of Lent) as they react to the puppet Petrushka (similar to Punch in the Punch and Judy shows) brought to life by his creator, who finally kills him off by proving he was never truly alive in the first place. It was a lively way to consummate the BSO season.

The BSO's 2019-20 season, starting September 19th, is open for subscriptions (individual ticketing at 10am on August 5), and promises to be another comprehensive and fulfilling year.

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