The Boston Symphony Orchestra performed the last concert of a program including the American premiere of Mark-Anthony Turnages Speranza and Gustav Mahlers Das Lied von der Erde last week. Although stylistically different, both pieces were thematically similar: each one expressed a feeling of hope. The title of the first work, Speranza, means hope in Italian, and the names of the four movements of the piece come from Arabic, German, Gaelic and Hebrew equivalents: Amal, Hoffen, Dochas and Tikvah. The pairing of this work with Mahlers orchestral song was notable because Das Lied von der Erde also possesses pan-cultural elements, with the piece including German translations of Chinese poetry.
Mark-Anthony Turnage originally composed Speranza in memory of poets and writers who had committed suicide, such as Romanian poet Paul Celan. In an interview with boosey.com, Turnage explained that he initially wanted to write a big, dark, despairing work. However, he decided what he had written was a bit too melancholic, especially for a 45-minute piece, and began incorporating more positive elements transforming the piece into something more uplifting and optimistic. The work has taken a decidedly different turn from his initial intentions, but Turnage noted that although Speranza shimmers a lot, I suspect the dark heart of the original idea still peeks through.
And he is certainly right. There are moments when Speranza did shimmer the third movement was especially energetic with its jazzy, syncopated melodic ideas. Turnages music is much influenced by jazz; as a composer he has featured deliberate allusions to jazz legends such as Miles Davis and Gil Evans.
Despite the liveliness of the third movement, the rest of the piece is noticeably darker, saturated with dense harmonies that lent a gloomier edge to the upbeat rhythms. The closing notes are played by a duduk a Hungarian wind instrument whose timbre adds a mournful quality to the composition. Ironically, heavy, sorrowful sounds seem to weigh down Speranza.
The second half of the program consisted of Das Lied von der Erde, which although written at a very difficult time in Mahlers life focuses on beauty rather than despair. The soloists were mezzo-soprano Christianne Stojin and tenor Michael Schade. The duo had an interesting dynamic: a restless Schade spent the duration of the performance with his music binder in hand, not quite connecting with the audience, while Stojin read from a mini-score and seemed contemplative and reflective on stage.
Unfortunately, the overall performance was rather unremarkable. The tenor solo voice is written quite high, and against a full orchestra it was difficult to hear Schade, especially in the opening minutes. There was a point when conductor Daniel Harding, making debut with the BSO, helped balance all the parts, finally allowing the refrain to be heard. However, the subsequent movements were not particularly noteworthy.
Stojins performance was the saving grace of the evening. Her tone was full and resonant, and she rarely looked down at her score, keeping the audience completely captivated. Her performance was truly one of realized hope.
Be sure to check www.bso.org for upcoming concerts including Benjamin Brittens unforgettable and haunting War Requiem this Veterans Day Weekend.