The challenge of making music within the context of a pandemic has spurred the Boston Symphony Orchestra to devise an innovative format for its three-stream series, Music In Changing Times – The Spirit of Beethoven: a chamber piece and a contemporary composition (one or the other in dialogue with Beethoven) and a Beethoven symphony. This week’s concert finds Andris Nelsons conducting Iman Habibi’s Jeder Baum spricht and Beethoven’s Sixth followed by orchestra members Cynthia Meyers, Danny Kim, and Jessica Zhou performing Debussy’s Sonata for flute, viola, and harp.

The Boston Symphony Orchestra
© Aram Boghosian

The Philadelphia Orchestra commissioned Jeder Baum spricht as one of a series of compositions in dialogue with Beethoven’s symphonies. Habibi picked the Fifth and the Sixth which shared the program of the world premiere last March. The title derives from a note in the sketchbook for the Sixth where Beethoven invokes the Almighty and exclaims, “Every tree speaks through you!” The role of nature in the two symphonies sparked Habibi’s concept: were he alive today, Beethoven would be an environmentalist. As such, how would his music express the challenge climate change presents to his beloved nature?

Habibi employs the same instrumentation as the Fifth and peppers the score with its famous rhythmic motif, sometimes disguised and barely recognizable, and more as a birdcall than the pounding fist of fate (the call of the yellowhammer, a bird common to the Vienna parks Beethoven frequented, might have been the inspiration for the motif). Jeder is both restless and relentless. As in the Sixth, repetition figures prominently, though thwarted by frequent and often abrupt shifts resulting in a sense of frustration and stasis. Various episodes grow from a solid base of sound like trees in a forest, but their growth is stunted. Dark, alarming fanfares and percussive rhythms open Jeder and recur, but, after the orchestra basically floods the stage with dense sound, things turn quiet and mournful, before the brass return majestic and unvanquished to close on a note of light and hope. Nelsons was sensitive to the Beethovenian tension between hope and despair, light and dark in Jeder. Those tensions drove the performance to great effect and created its power and drama. Though conceived as a response to the climate crisis, Jeder resonates even more in the context of the Covid crisis.

Andris Nelsons
© Aram Boghosian

Like many other artists, walking was part of Beethoven’s creative process. None of his compositions walks more than the Sixth. It begins tentatively, builds to a brisker pace, then settles into a leisurely, contemplative stroll, interrupted only by a rustic celebration and a thunderstorm. Nelsons’ pace was not only leisurely but languid and hypnotic in the second movement. Accents and colors provided variety and the humor of the rustic dances and the intense, concentrated violence of the thunderstorm contrast. Excellent camera work contributed to the transparency and clarity by visualizing the interplay between various instruments and sections in the reduced orchestra, especially the eloquent winds. The closing hymn of thanksgiving became a bedtime prayer capped by a deep sigh of contentment. With three quarters of the country frozen to the bone by the Polar Express and snow falling outside, the BSO’s performance was a welcome idyll and a gentle reminder that Spring is not far off.

Once again the visual abetted the audio in Debussy’s sonata. Kim and Meyers stood on either side of Zhou’s harp, as their instruments talked over hers. The harp holds its own, though, both mediating and taking the lead. They each created a distinct musical personality which enriched the  fragmented and shape-shifting conversation ranging from the polychromatic Pastorale, through the playful, carefree Interlude, to the turbulence and unexpected exuberance of the closing. Debussy considered the sonata “music by a Debussy I no longer know”. Its equivocal harmonies, echoes of the East, and splashes of watery, translucent colors certainly recall the young composer, but the episodic, movements and halting juxtapositions of ever changing motifs are pure mature Debussy, as is the hint of desperation and the edge it imparts, which this trio never lost sight of. To paraphrase the composer: not knowing whether to laugh or cry, you do both. And if that doesn’t sum up music in changing times, I don’t know what does.

This performance was reviewed from the BSO NOW video stream