Beethoven, Birds & Bog: BachSoc mixes it up

by Gabrielle Lochard

The Bach Society Orchestra concert Saturday, Oct. 8, was geared towards diversity, an intent reflected in the program notes, the manager’s pre-concert introduction and by music director Jesse Wong ’12 in a conversation I had with him post-concert. All three emphasized that the concert was comprised of two pieces from the Classical period, which book-ended the program, with the contrast of a 20th century piece in the middle. The two older pieces were the ballet music from Mozart’s Idomeneo (1781), and Beethoven’s 8th Symphony (1812), the good-humored and lesser known orchestral foray tucked between the 7th and 9th. The contemporary offering was by Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara, who was born in 1928.

"When we chose repertoire at the end of last year," explains Wong, "we found a lot of pieces that could potentially be put onto BachSoc programs independently of each other, including the ones on Saturday’s program. When we started sorting through everything and putting concerts together, the Mozart and the Beethoven made a great pairing. Looking for a third piece, we either wanted to do something that was very much the same as those two pieces, or drastically different. If we had chosen a Classical piece, it would have given the concert a strong purpose, but I feel that choosing the Rautavaara gave a huge diversity to the program."

And Rautavaara’s Cantus Articus for tape and orchestra, subtitled Concerto for Birds and Orchestra, fit the bill. Using bird song as compositional material is actually one of the most common mimetic devices in classical music (Beethoven’s 6th Symphony Pastorale is probably the most famous example, but there are countless others). The compositional device of using pre-recorded music as a performance force is only about 70-years old, and this was the first time I had actually heard taped bird song in an orchestral work. I had heard rumors of the bird tapes earlier in the week, and was curious to hear how they would work with the orchestra, particularly because "concerto" suggests imitative dialogue between tape/bird and non-tape/bird.

Happily, dialogue was plentiful, and beyond that, achieved its own kind of charm. If we think about Beethoven’s Pastorale as a snapshot of the pastoral ideal, Cantus Articus presented a sort of new-age pastorality, replete with mist and migration. The piece has three movements -- The Bog, Melancholy and Swans Migrating -- and the realness of the taped material had the effect of total immersion in the bog. At the same time, real wit was obvious in imitative pairings of, for example, geese and trombones.

Cantus could have easily been film music, and the lushness of its tonal and textural language made it especially accessible. Lowell Lecture Hall, where Saturday’s concert was held, leant an additional layer of intimacy, which though unusual for the other pieces on the program -- as one orchestra member put it, "It was weird to play Beethoven" in a hall where the audience and orchestra were on the same plane -- fit the atmosphere of Cantus.

For Wong, the piece fits more into the Neo-Classical, impressionistic phase of the 20th century than into the avante garde: "I felt strongly about performing the Rautavaara because it’s a great piece, that’s very audience friendly and approachable." In all, Saturday’s concert offered a program of not-often performed pieces, and great example of a truly accessible branch of the 20th century repertoire.

[Caption: Jesse Wong '12]