Composers from Purcell to Pierre Boulez have written incidental music. In many cases it proves far from incidental, retaining a place in the concert hall long after the play has faded into oblivion. Who would be aware of The Ruins of Athens or King Stephen today were it not for Beethoven’s music? Even Goethe’s problematic play Egmont persists in memory thanks to Beethoven and the overture written as part of his score for an 1810 revival. The complete score is extensive including brief entr’actes to set the mood for each of the remaining four acts, two songs for Egmont’s beloved, Klärchen, an orchestral interlude depicting her death, and underscoring for Egmont’s final scene and speech which includes a ghostly, mute apparition of Klärchen as Freedom. The overture’s rousing Allegro con brio coda, the Siegessymphonie (Victory Symphony), immediately follows to close the play, prefiguring the eventual triumph over tyranny foreshadowed by Egmont’s vision and upending the line from Klärchen’s final song, an apt motto for the quintessence of Romanticism, “from heavenly bliss to utter despair”.

Camilla Tilling, Ken-David Masur and the BSO
Camilla Tilling, Ken-David Masur and the BSO

Ken-David Masur performed the complete Incidental Music to Goethe’s “Egmont” beginning with a measured, autumnal-hued overture. The coda aside, it contains no music from the rest of the score, but still graphically sets the tone for the rest of the play. Despite the distinct moods and colors conjured, the entr’actes suffered the most from the absence of their specific dramatic context, flickering glimpses of something indistinct. They were further overshadowed by the more substantial and theatrical arc of the final three sections of the score, beginning with “Klärchen’s Death“, and by the two songs- one martial and vivacious, the other a muted plaint -sung with silvery, youthful clarity by Camilla Tilling. Klärchen, in fact, so dominates the incidental music, you would assume she and not Egmont was the play’s protagonist. Masur, however, seemed still to be searching for the strand to string all these pearls together. 

Ibsen’s 1867 sprawling, allegorical closet drama, Peer Gynt, defies all the conventions and limitations of 19th-century stagecraft. Its action careens across continents; its protagonist – the id personified – dons and doffs identities like an itinerant actor: gambler, slave trader, Bible salesman, Arabian prophet, and malefactor of great wealth. The story unfolds with the logic of a dream, straddling fantasy and reality. The medium equal to its jarring, cinematic shifts in time, place, and tone had yet to be invented: film. Grieg’s music is, in a sense, the first film score... ironic considering how it was strip mined from the silent era on.

Caleb Mayo in <i>Peer Gynt</i> © Robert Torres
Caleb Mayo in Peer Gynt
© Robert Torres

Director Bill Barclay and the same production team behind the BSO’s winning staging of Mendelssohn’s music for A Midsummer’s Night Dream peopled the expansive stage extension with a colorful array of characters and situations, skillfully transforming the hall with simple sound and lighting effects, Will Lyman’s disembodied, sepulchral voice caroming off the four walls and ceiling as the Bøygen, the organ’s pipes glowing bright emerald green for the Troll King’s lair and a demonic red for the “Night Scene” melodrama. All dressed in white, the Tanglewood Festival Chorus reflected the lighting effects or were suggestively lit themselves; the orchestra wore black shirts and slacks. Assorted tables, stools, chairs and a pair of hat racks were configured to create everything from a summit to a yacht. Translations for the choral and solo music were projected on the side walls of the stage. 

Ken-David Masur and the BSO in <i>Peer Gynt</i> © Robert Torres
Ken-David Masur and the BSO in Peer Gynt
© Robert Torres

Barclay and Masur pared Grieg’s 90 minutes of music and 26 compositions down to 60 minutes and 19. Ibsen’s verse was translated into slangy, colloquial English, replete with references to current events, name checking the EU, copyright and the “public domain” and incorporating some pungent, topical wordplay on the word “troll”. Though the overall tone was entertaingingly picaresque, the drama of identity and its cost remained in the foreground. Nor was this a fairy tale, as the two suites Grieg fashioned might suggest. “In the Hall of the Mountain King” with its fierce cries of “Kill him!” from the troll chorus and brutal percussion is a hair-raising episode, as is the “Night Scene”. But the two quietest scenes left the most lasting impression: “Åse’s Death” with its undulating lullaby/dirge and Bobbie Steinbach’s querulous voice, parched and trembling with old age; and the ethereal and soothing mellifluous balm of Tilling’s closing lullaby, heavenly bliss in the voice of an angel.

Beethoven would have definitely benefited from similar treatment from Barclay and his crew, but it would have made for a long evening. With two clever and engaging productions under their belt, though, here’s hoping the BSO engages them again. L’enfance du Christ, anyone?