By Keith Powers
BOSTON — “In the street with nobody the presence passed without passing,” wrote Nobel Prize-winning poet Octavio Paz. It’s a line from his un despertar (an awakening), the title and inspiration for Matthias Pintscher’s new work for cello and orchestra, which had its world premiere March 23 at Boston’s Symphony Hall.
Weilerstein has collaborated extensively with Pintscher. In 2016, she performed the Schumann concerto with Pintscher on the podium, with the Danish National Symphony Orchestra. And that summer, she gave the BBC Proms premiere of his Reflections on Narcissus, also with Pintscher conducting.
Paz’s poem describes a state at the edge of sleep, the demi-world between the dream and the real. Pintscher’s score maintains that mood throughout the work’s 25-minute duration. Its energies are subtle — strong, but subtle.
un despertar establishes a delicate sound-world from the hushed opening, the cello whispering across the stage to piano, harp, and percussion. There are moments of turbulence, almost anger, but the bulk of this work is resolutely meditative. Its active parts are startlingly active, but it’s almost fifteen minutes before the volume rises above mezzo-forte.
Percussion dominates—and not just a vast array of traditional percussion (four players, almost three dozen instruments). There is percussive scoring in the piano (lid off, inside pizzicato throughout, also scratching the strings with a metal hammer), and for the harp and strings as well.
un despertar is in one movement and has really just one mood, although the energy builds sturdily at times before ebbing back to calmness. It does have several tutti agitato sections toward the conclusion, a kind of sonic release point after so much understated energy.
Despite its soft dynamics, the music is dense with extra-musical activity and unusual techniques, with the low strings bowing at the very bottom of the tailpiece, the percussionists using plastic cups for mallets, and many other inventive approaches.
un despertar challenges the basic premise of concerto. Rather than soloist vs. orchestra, or “soloist calling, orchestra responding,” the work seemed more “soloist influencing.” If it was a concerto at all, it would have to be called a concerto for cello and percussion.
The sonic range stayed generally mezzo, the core strength of the solo instrument. The overall impression was that the orchestra imitated what the cellist played. Some of the more unusual markings in the score — hitting the trombone mouthpiece with the flat of the hand, blowing without pitch into some of the winds, a contrabassoon solo played directly into the bocal (with no reed) — were mostly inaudible in performance.
There was no real cadenza; at one point the conductor is instructed to stop leading, and the soloist does foray into a brief line alone. But it is far too early in the work to serve as a cadenza, and lacks that flourish and intensity as well.
The demands on the soloist are great. Weilerstein played almost nonstop, with much quiet coloring and many doublings — some quite inventive — with strings, winds, and percussion. Aggressive bowing, with many double stops and agile, unusual fingerings, characterized the entire solo line.
The work is a virtuosic challenge and hardly engenders a “stand up and cheer” response. But the musical values in un despertar run deep, and Pintscher’s voice is unique, colorful, sophisticated.
“It’s like a menu,” Roth said at rehearsal about the entire program. “You can’t have just meat.” He was trying to explain the sensibility-jarring juxtaposition of Berlioz’ Le Corsaire overture, Pintscher’s premiere, and Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony. As a menu, it was perhaps more satisfying as a tasting adventure than as a “compliments to the chef” experience.
Le Corsaire wears its title aptly: It prances carefree through moods that swing from introspective to untamed, seemingly unconcerned with whatever has already been unveiled musically. It’s richly orchestrated, and Roth shifted to each musical mood with facility.
Beethoven’s Pastoral, its depictions forthright, its thunderstorm the only upset in its “nice nature, no dissonance” approach, closed the concert. Roth had seated the second violins at the front of the stage opposite the firsts, and this arrangement brought out nuances, most notably the seconds playing the multiple repeats of the last movement’s “hymn of thanks.” This marks Roth’s third appearance with the BSO, and the relationship already seems congenial and fruitful.
Keith Powers covers music and the arts for GateHouse Media and WBUR’s ARTery. Follow @PowersKeith; email to email@example.com.