BSO: Into the harmony machine

Giancarlo Guerrero
The Berkshire Eagle

Like a boy who on a dare swallows a hot dog whole, the Boston Symphony Orchestra took a deep breath and gulped down John Adams' 40-minutde "Harmonielehre."

The 1985 post-minimalist work, which dominated Saturday night's Tanglewood program, is a modern classic — a monument to splashy orchestral colors and the outer limits of repetition. Yet the BSO had never before played it in its entirety, and the only previous Tanglewood performance was in 1985 by the Music Center Orchestra.

If you didn't leave this orchestral riot feeling a little woozy, you probably missed something. "Harmonielehre" — the title is taken from Schoenberg's treatise on harmony — swoops down on you like an oncoming train, sounds like a clock factory gone mad, swoons in Mahler-like melody, wallows in Wagnerian blood and ends up amid kid's stuff.

Whether the BSO chose Giancarlo Guerrero to conduct the piece or he chose it to conduct, the match seemed like an ideal fit. His all-over-the-podium energy communicated itself to the oversized orchestra, which coped heroically with minimalism's piled-up rhythms and repetitions.

"Harmonielehre" is at once subtle in design and unsubtle in its claim on the ears. It is a symphony in three movements, the last two of which are titled "The Anfortas Wound" (see Wagner's "Parsifal") and "Meister Eckhardt and Quackie" (that would be a medieval mystic and Adams' infant daughter).

Adams went on to more substantial works, such as the operas, but "Harmonielehre," in its sheer madness, is irresistible. For one night, it seemed, the BSO couldn't resist. 

Read the rest of the review here