I need every instrument you got!
The BSO performs ‘En Saga,’ ‘Jeux,’ and ‘Sheherazade.2’
Week 18: Sibelius’s “En Saga,” Debussy’s “Jeux — Poèm Dansé,” John Adams’s “Scheherazade.2”
Boston Symphony Orchestra
March 1, 2018
This week’s stage was packed (nearly) wall-to-wall with instruments, fully representing the winds. This allows for one of the most interesting parts of these kind of late-Romantic/early-Modern era pieces: their expressive power. With the ability to create an arbitrarily large set of timbres to choose from, along with the full range of dynamics, textures, rhythms, and themes, the possibilities are seemingly endless.
The first piece of the night was Sibelius’s “En Saga” (1902). Starting softly in the horns, adding rhythmic and lightly dissonant oboes on top, the piece introduces itself as solemn and dream-like.
Building and releasing, the introductory moments of the piece immediately show the power and expression of the orchestra. Easily shifting between dynamics, blending the different sections perfectly, effortlessly shifting texture and mood as a beautiful collective, the orchestra brought the piece to life, presenting the main theme with fortitude and confidence, leading into a series of traded themes between the light and hopeful flutes and pizzicato strings and the dire, foreboding horns, reinforced by the mid and low strings.
Throughout the piece, development of mood plays a central role in drawing the most profound emotions in a continuous, profound way. Going from triumphant, to suspenseful, to just plain dark, and back to dramatic, the piece details a journey of emotion that cannot be truly expressed in words; indeed, the composer himself rejected any attempt by writers to fit a single story to his masterpiece.
Next up was Debussy’s “Jeux— Poème Dansé” (1913). As per Debussy, this piece was about as weird as it gets in a pre-Modern era piece. The piece feels like it is being seen from underwater — there is a clear order to it, but it’s obfuscated by the shifting mass of distortive water above.
The piece begins pleasantly quiet, but immediately introduces odd dissonances and timbres, setting itself up for an intriguing amount of textures and themes. From confusing spirals to deliberately dreamy dances, the piece explores a range of expressive textures that had the continuity and and cohesion of a strange dream — complete, in my case, with oddly specific synesthetic shapes and colours, making the whole experience just that much trippier.
The final piece of the night was John Adams’s “Sheherazade.2” (2014). If “Jeux” was weird, this piece dove into the absurd. With the extensive and exotic instrumentation, the piece encapsulates a series of images from Arabian Nights in dramatic, if confusing fashion.
“Sheherazade.2” takes a different direction to dissonance than Debussy did with the previous piece: instead of simply dissenting tone and rhythmic structure, Adams instead opted to remove the melodic centre of the piece, causing what would initially be a confusing mess of competing melodies to somehow come together as a single piece under a (incredibly expressive) violin soloist, Liela Josefowicz.
While it was often near-impossible to discern what was going on in the orchestra, between chaotic interplays between sections and shockingly loud portions, leaving mere impressions of everything from darkness to excitement, mystery, and majesty, the soloist put above it all a chaotic, but satisfying and profound expression of Sheherazade’s character, from sweet melodies to moving laments.
All-in-all, I’m not sure how to feel about this piece. While technical and expressive, I walked out of the Symphony Hall wanting to listen to it again and again, just to work out how much I actually enjoyed versus simply appreciated it.