BSO’s latest Lera Auerbach commission worthy of attention

A frustration of many classical and contemporary music critics is that we hear a new work that seems to have great promise for being added to the canon, and then poof! It disappears, never to be performed again, not even by the commissioning body.

Lera Auerbach. Photo credit: N. Feller.
Lera Auerbach. Photo credit: N. Feller.

Lera Auerbach’s Eve’s Lament, a new composition based on Book XI in Milton’s Paradise Lost will hopefully buck this trend of “one and done” because I want to hear it again. The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra debuted the work in a series of performances this week at the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall in Baltimore and the Strathmore Music Center in North Bethesda. It was co-commissioned by former US ambassador to Finland, Bonnie McElveen-Hunter, and the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra which debuted the work last month. The Netherlands Radio Philharmonic and the Vienna Konzerthaus are also co-commissioners.

The work was so rich with color, tones, and sounds, I wanted to linger and savor each new introduction to the soundscape. There was a haunting soprano sound, but no soprano. Instead, it was the synthesized eerie sci-fi B movie sound of an ondes martenot played by BSO keyboardist Lura Johnson. If you’re a Radiohead fan, you will recognize it as that alien-spaceship-about-to-land sound in their song, How to Disappear Completely.

Johnson played Auerbach’s wah-wah strains with deft restraint, skillfully evoking the core sadness to Milton’s verse. The effect was less extra-terrestrial, more inter-terrestrial: Where will Eve go now that she has been cast from the garden of Eden, her “haunt of gods where [she] had hope to spend”? She will go inward to find her own rules, wisdom, and self-knowledge.

The work is as classical as it is ambient, and thus is highly accessible for any listener. It roars into existence through the brass and percussion sections, thrashing you like an angry bear, before sorting itself out into Wagnerian tones that are more atmospheric than explicit. A complex wail builds between the winds, brass – especially the trombone and tuba – timpani and percussion, sweetly saddened by the harp, synthesizer, and the strings, all of which were played with the respect and intrigue the work deserved.

Lera Auerbach. Photo credit: N. Feller.
Lera Auerbach. Photo credit: N. Feller.

A native Russian, Auerbach defected to the US in 1991 while on tour as a concert pianist. Since then, she has composed dozens of works psychological in nature, often making the connection between the loss of paradise – Earth – through climate change, and the impact that is having on how we think and feel in seemingly unrelated ways. I am sure that in listening to Eve’s Lament, I missed much of what Auerbach seemed to be saying about loss and what comes after.

Placing this work alongside Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture, Prokofiev’s first symphony, the “Classical” Symphony, and Stravinsky’s ballet score Pulcinella as it was for the final performance at the Strathmore, it might have seemed the unifying theme was more about the Russia-America connections between composers with Brahms as the Germanic side dish. However, it was cheeky use of classical forms that tied it all together.

The boisterous Brahms overture based on drinking songs was a bit of a bird flip to academics who’d expected him to write a serious ode. Prokofiev’s trifle with Haydn’s neo-Classicism is unexpectedly fast and cheery with 20th-century key changes. Stravinsky’s mishmash of 18th-century forms done with 20th-century syncopation made the ballet novel and thus cutting edge. Add to these Auerbach’s trippy but structured work, and a few centuries of musical form and function were upended into a coherent story.

Although the Stravinsky offered the woodwinds a moment to shine in the nicely balanced gavotte, the night belonged to the strings since each work was scored heavily in their favor. They lagged a bit in the Brahms, but were tightly focused for the Auerbach, which had the quirk of relying not on the first chairs but instead upon the back row of both the high and low strings for its solo moments. The Prokofiev is among my favorite of all 20th-century works, and I tend to hear it faster in my head than BSO Music Director Marin Alsop paced it. Maybe she was seeking a balance between the work’s typical rocket blast effect and the quiet sadness of the Auerbach. No matter: it was a perfect palate cleanse leading up to the Stravinsky.

Marin Alsop leads the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Photo: Courtesy of the BSO.
Marin Alsop leads the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Photo: Courtesy of the BSO.

The notably relaxed tempi continued in Pulcinella, during which concertmaster Jonathan Carney offered some shimmer. The piece also featured American singers, the soprano Elise Thora Volkmann, tenor Jason Lee Berger, and bass-baritone Peter Tomaszewski. Tomaszewski and Volkmann were making their BSO debuts.

Pulcinella is a pretty thankless job for singers. Except for the tenor who patters his way through Stravinsky’s version of a rap on vapid women, there are no moments of vocal pyrotechnics, and on balance, not much music for them to sing at all.

Volkmann seemed in second gear but capable of a full-throttled fifth; it would be nice to have her come back and sing something more challenging in order to take her full measure. Tomaszewski didn’t have the low notes he needed, but his voice is pleasant. It was Berger who stood out for his ease with the material and his big sound.

The crowd, perhaps still relieved in their confidence that the rest of the season will be uninterrupted by lockouts and other dramas, were committed in their enthusiasm for every piece played, including the Auerbach. My hope is that their appreciation was noted and that the Auerbach will stay in rotation so that in time, we will know whether to admit it to the canon.

Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes, with one 20-minute intermission.

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra performed Johannes Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture, Lera Auerbach’s Eve’s Lament – O Flowers, That Never Will Grow, Sergei Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 1 in D Major, op. 25, “Classical”, and Igor Stravinsky’s Pulcinella, Ballet in One Act, on Sunday, November 24, at 3 p.m. at the Music Center at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda, MD. For tickets to future BSO performances, go online.


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