John Harbison turns 80 in December. The Boston Symphony is celebrating his long association with the orchestra, Tanglewood, and musical life in Boston, programming two pieces and devoting a concert by the Boston Symphony Chamber Players to his chamber music. Sir Andrew Davis will perform Symphony no. 2 in January. Associate Conductor, Ken David Masur, opened the second series of the season with 1985’s “Remembering Gatsby” Foxtrot for Orchestra.

Ken-David Masur with John Harbison
© Robert Torres

Over the years, Harbison had toyed with the idea of making an opera out of The Great Gatsby. Facing a commission for Robert Shaw and the Atlanta Symphony, he turned to his sketches for the abandoned opera, combining what would later be developed into the overture with a pastiche of a Jazz Age foxtrot, “Dreaming of You”, a tune destined for soprano and a small nightclub ensemble complete with characteristic soprano saxophone, drum kit, woodblocks and cowbell. The opening passage could easily double as the main theme for a film by Douglas Sirk or Nicholas Ray. Masur infused that explosion of sound with dark power and lacerating despair. The foxtrot then gradually took shape, a gathering dream sequence evoking a speakeasy. Played with crisply articulated percussion and a dash of swing, the dance tune shifted shape then fragmented and vanished with the return of the opening motif, encapsulating Gatsby’s thwarted hopes and tragic end. Harbison came out to share in the applause.

Rachmaninov’s first attempt at a piano concerto was a student exercise. Structurally it mimicked Grieg, but even at age eighteen, Rachmaninov was already substantially the composer the world would come to know. He revisited the score in 1917 simplifying both the orchestration and the piano part but without dampening the concerto’s youthful exuberance. With a vigor and impetuosity belying a career of nearly fifty years, Garrick Ohlsson captured that exuberance scattering notes like droplets in a sun shower in those rapid runs Rachmaninov often favored but with plenty of power and nuance in reserve for the more dramatic passages. The cadenza was a turbulent thunderstorm of sound so charged and intense it could have stood on its own. The skies cleared for a rhapsodic, moonlit Andante from both soloist and orchestra while the concluding, energetic Allegro vivace danced under the rays of a brilliant sun. Applause broke out after the high octane first movement and was even more enthusiastic at the end. Ohlsson responded with the Prelude in C sharp minor, a close contemporary to the first version of the concerto, which displayed the same mastery of touch, dynamics, drama and poetry.

Ken-David Masur and the Boston Symphony
© Robert Torres

Political upheaval postponed Prokofiev’s ballet, Romeo and Juliet, so many times, he decided to fashion two suites from the score so the music, at least, could be performed. Like most conductors these days, Masur borrowed from both to concoct his own series of excerpts, mixing purely descriptive dance episodes with narrative ones: Montagues and Capulets, The Street Awakens, Juliet the Young Girl, Masks, Minuet, Dance of the Antilian Girls, Balcony Scene, Friar Laurence, The Death of Tybalt, and Romeo at Juliet’s Tomb.

Montagues and Capulets has become a pop culture earworm, with all sorts of unfortunate associations, on a par with Orff’s O fortuna. All that was forgotten as Masur unleashed a feral outburst of concentrated sound. Broad sweeping gestures and an expressive baton articulated by all the joints in his right arm drew a kaleidoscope of dramatically appropriate sound, rhythm and color, giving so much voice to the ballet that it took on the quality of an opera without words. With its relentless, pounding beat, The Death of Tybalt closed in such imposing, grotesque and granitic fashion that it brought to mind Shostakovich. Romeo at Juliet’s Tomb could have been an anticlimax as a result, but Masur’s sense of theater is so sure and his ability to elicit what he wants from an orchestra so sound that its contrasting lyricism was enhanced rather than diminished.

Masur has the knack for building and sustaining drama and tension within each piece in a program, creating a sense of inevitability through to the end. It would be a treat to hear him bring that skill to bear on an opera sometime (hint, hint...).