Before motion pictures, audiences beguiled themselves with moving-pictures of natural wonders, more popularly known as panoramas. One example is William Burr’s 1850 “Moving Mirror”, one of the longest panoramas, whose painted scenes unscrolled to an accompanying narrative and incidental music, transporting viewers on a journey through the Great Lakes to Niagara Falls, then down the St Lawrence River, being meant to instruct and inspire. Richard Strauss’ final, panoramic tone poem, An Alpine Symphony, paints its own images in purely musical terms, taking its listeners on a similar journey of mystery, wonder and majesty in a cavalcade of 22 titled vignettes spanning a day and describing what a young Strauss saw and experienced climbing in the Alps. This includes the mountain itself, the forest, a brook, a waterfall, meadows, a pasture, the glacier, moments of danger and confusion, fog and a storm so convincing it should carry a trigger warning for any listener ever caught on a mountain during one.

Leonidas Kavakos © Marco Borggreve
Leonidas Kavakos
© Marco Borggreve

Under Andris Nelsons’ direction, this was no mere colorful travelogue, but a searching spiritual journey, shaded by the adult Strauss’ shock and sorrow at the loss of his friend Mahler in 1911 and bracketed by two contrasting depictions of night – the opening one brooding and enigmatic, the closing one a comforting descent into quiet and sleep. “Apparition”, “Vision” and “Elegy” were given extra weight and prominence in this performance and the quizzical, stammering oboe which interrupts the celebration of brass on the summit marked a turning point to the more existential tones of the storm-driven descent and its aftermath, proving there is much more in this tone poem than superficially meets the ear.

The program opened with an equally atmospheric composition, Derek Bermel’s 2006 piece Elixir, a deceptively simple, hypnotic composition along the lines of Ives’ The Unanswered Question with its repeating pulse in the strings interrupted by the interjections of other instruments in contrasting keys. Bermel, however, is interested in how sound and space interact, so he exiles the woodwinds to the right corner, moves the brass up behind the strings in the center, and splits the harps on either side of them. Two cohorts are placed on opposite sides offstage, one consisting of flutes, first oboe, first clarinet and first trombone stage right, the other including the second oboe, English horn, second clarinet/bass clarinet, first and second horns, and first trombone stage left. Bermel prefers greater space between the two groups and the main orchestra and has placed them in the balconies of other venues. Lack of room and acoustical considerations precluded that in Symphony Hall. 

The percussionist ran a mallet around the thick rim of a deep nipple gong, wind chimes jingled and cymbals shimmered, creating a spectral aura to open Elixir. The strings began a deep, flowing pulse, repeated, extended and subtly altered. A theremin added a ghostly mezzo vocalise. The eye searched for the singer the ear heard and found no one. The two groups gradually joined in talking over the main theme in contrasting timbres and rhythms, with hints of bird calls and fanfares. Everything built, then subsided, ending as it began with the gong, wind chimes and cymbals fading to silence. This was a heady elixir, its effect mesmerizing and trance-inducing.

Leonidas Kavakos, in robin’s egg blue tunic and dark grey slacks, closed the first half with a rhythmically sharp, rhapsodic Violin Concerto no. 2 in G minor by Prokofiev. Standing still and erect and rarely employing more than his forearm to bow, Kavakos’ composure belied the passion of his playing in the turbulent first movement and the sensuous, languid lilt of the second movement’s lush main theme, which he and Nelsons turned into a soulful daydream of a dance. He dug into the staccato double stops of the final movement from the shoulder, jolting the final movement to life with its exotic Spanish flavor complete with castanets. His intensity and energy made Prokofiev’s abrupt ending all the more dramatic.