Ballet, Beethoven and the Birds

The Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO) has a venerable tradition of performing the modern classical music of the age. Its various conductors throughout its 121-year history have often promoted the display of new and occasionally controversial music. Although the music performed during the March 2 concert is not new in our time, it still retains the innovative flavor of much of the 20th century repertoire. The concert program skillfully integrated different genres and time periods in classical music, consisting of Stravinsky, Messiaen and Beethoven. All were directed by German guest conductor Ingo Metzmacher.

The concert began with Stravinsky’s Orpheus, a ballet in three scenes based on classical mythology. The story focuses on Orpheus, who mourns the death of Eurydice, but then convinces Pluto to let him be reunited with her in the land of Hades. Orpheus neglects to follow Pluto’s rules and Eurydice dies on the way out of the underworld, while Orpheus is also killed upon returning to earth. Stravinsky wrote the ballet in Hollywood in 1947 and first conducted it with the BSO in 1949. The melancholy of the tale is reflected in the minor dissonances and tear-drop interludes in the music.

The Boston Symphony Orchestra’s rendition was of the highest quality. Metzmacher brings the orchestra through the anger and fear of the underworld to a violent earthly death with expert ease and precision. The piece begins appropriately with a Lento Sostenuto as Orpheus weeps by the coffin of Eurydice; the orchestra then speeds up as Orpheus picks up his lyre and begins to dance. The dissonance of the underground becomes agitated as the Furies try to destroy Orpheus, but they are stilled as the orchestra produces the sonorous sounds of his lyre. In the finale, Orpheus dies amidst a violent attack of drums and violins.

Composer and Stravinsky pupil Ingolf Dahl once said about this music, “Stravinsky thinks of his music in terms of its speaking quality, as if it were giving voice to the inflection of the protagonists and their story.” This quality of Stravinsky was perfectly conveyed by the BSO’s performance.

Olivier Messiaen’s Réveil des Oiseaux (Awakening of the Birds) is, curiously enough, precisely what its title says. It is not some symbolic interpretation of the dawn of spring or the rebirth of nature. Instead, the listener is provided with a list of the names of 38 different birds in five different languages, beginning of course with the original French. The music imitates the different calls of all these birds in succession, with limited variation of the calls infused into the piano solo.


Messiaen, who began collecting birdsong when he was 15, dedicated the music to “the blackbirds, thrushes, nightingales, orioles, robins, warblers, and all the birds of our forests.” The birds awake in stages, beginning with Midnight, through the Dawn Chorus and ending at Noon. The music begins with the lone nightingale represented by a succession of octaves on the solo piano. A duet of nightingales soon follows. The orchestra does not play a large role in the piece, and when it does enter the forest of birds it serves as an indicator of the timbre of the birds’ voices and their environment.

Appropriately, the program concluded with something from the height of classic sensibility, Beethoven’s Second Symphony. The symphony, of a bright and carefree character, was written during one of the darkest times of the composer’s life. He had finally realized that his hearing was failing and that his health would never be restored. It is a joyful symphony, rendered in equally high spirits by the BSO. The connection between personal misery and musical delight would recur several times throughout the rest of Beethoven’s life. It was necessary, after an intense musical evening, to end on a somewhat lighter note; the orchestra provided this perfectly. The Boston Symphony Orchestra’s graceful rendition of the familiar melodies and brought the diversely beautiful program to a successful close.


Boston Symphony Orchestra

Conducted by Ingo Metzmacher

Mar. 2

Symphony Hall