Arts concert review

Storytelling through theater and music in the BSO’s performance of Peer Gynt

A wonderful combination of theater and orchestra

10336 bso peer gynt
Peer Gynt (Caleb Mayo) and the Woman in Green (Caroline Lawton) in the BSO’s performance of Peer Gynt.
Photo Courtesy of Robert Torres

Grieg’s Peer Gynt 

Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO) 

Conducted by Dima Slobodeniouk 

Staged by Bill Barclay 

Symphony Hall 

Mar. 9, 2024 

Although Peer Gynt is mainly known for its cinematic movements like “Morning Mood,” and “Hall of the Mountain King,” Edvard Grieg’s orchestral suite was originally a play by Henrik Ibsen. Peer Gynt is about the adventures of the titular Peer Gynt, a brash Norwegian peasant chasing wealth and success who unfortunately fails miserably. The Boston Symphony Orchestra’s (BSO) performance of Edvard Grieg’s Peer Gynt was unlike typical classical music concerts due to its combination of orchestra and theater. Bill Barclay wrote and directed the staged adaptation. As a frequent concertgoer, I initially felt unfamiliar with the performance’s format. In the end, however, the packed stage of actors, musicians, and singers performing together made the experience refreshing.

The performance began with opening remarks from BSO’s CEO Chad Smith about the recent passing of Joyce Linde, a BSO Trustee and philanthropist. The orchestra played “Fairy Garden” (Le Jardin Féerique) from Maurice Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite to commemorate Linde. Despite its calming quality, the piece had a complex array of emotions, as the violin’s silky timbre made the piece feel endearing and bittersweet at the same time. The gradual crescendo and the unison of various sounds, from the glockenspiel’s bright sounds to the French horn’s richness, ended the piece with renewed hope. 

The rest of the concert featured Bill Barclay’s staged adaption of Peer Gynt, successfully weaving modern-day language and pop culture references into Ibsen’s original play. This English staging retained the rhyme and wittiness of the original Norwegian play. For instance, the dialogue between Peer Gynt (Caleb Mayo) and the Button Moulder (Robert Walsh) was amusing and didn’t feel outdated. In addition, while some scenes of the original play were cut for length to highlight the best of Grieg’s music, the drama and existential questions about identity manifested clearly in this staging. 

This staged adaptation was also different from other plays because of how little space there was for the actors. Props were used creatively; for instance, tables stacked upon each other doubled as a ship, and multiple chairs served as a bed. Thus, the limited space did little to hamper the experience. In addition, lighting was used to indicate different scenes and accentuate dramatic moments, such as when Peer Gynt is imprisoned in a madhouse. The sound effects were well-executed, especially Boyg’s daunting voice, which sounded from various places and reflected the state of paranoia that Peer was experiencing. 

The acting was spot-on, as the actors were expressive and authentic. Mayo does a fine job portraying Peer as a complex character who is arrogant, impulsive, and human and who is experiencing major turmoil and fear. The somber mother-son dialogue between Peer’s mother, Åse (Bobbie Steinbach), and Peer in the scene “Åse’s Death,” was touching for its emotional closeness and vulnerable nature. Soprano Georgia Jarman (Solveig) sang “Solveig’s Song” beautifully, and the tenderness and vibratos in her voice contributed to Solveig’s empathetic character.

The orchestration took on more varied forms not typically found in traditional concerts, switching between background music and whole, uninterrupted movements. Achieving the perfect balance of the theater and music was tricky. At times, the dialogue overpowered a beautiful swell of the strings or swoop of the flute. Overall, however, the transitions between the orchestra and the actors were rather smooth, and the two components meshed well together. 

The interwoven acting and music helped connect each movement beautifully as an overarching story. The acting helped portray Peer Gynt as a work that not only has a diverse range of scenes but also a story that explores complex themes such as mortality and ego. The orchestration set the mood for each scene and magnified the characters' emotions. For instance, the music added emotional depth to the tremendous sorrow in “Åse’s Death” and the unwavering awe in “Morning Mood. 

Other times, the music helped build tension and suspense in the plot, such as the high-pitched sounds of the flute and rapid descending notes in “Peer Gynt’s Return,” the part in which Peer enters a downward spiral. Besides instrumentation, the Tanglewood Festival chorus also played a major part in plot development, the booming voices complementing the orchestra’s crescendo that reached fortissimo in “The Hall of the Mountain King.” 

As a whole, BSO’s rendition of Peer Gynt was spectacular for its ingenuity and creativity, making the experience more enriching. The performance ended with thunderous applause from the audience. Although traditional performances have their own merits in encouraging the audience to listen carefully, masterfully combining theater and orchestra can help orchestras reach new audiences, appealing to children and those who would be put to sleep in a typical orchestra concert.