Even with nary a note of new music, Thursday’s program at the Boston Symphony Orchestra was something of a brave endeavor. Both halves of the night were devoted entirely to incidental music — by Beethoven and Grieg — written for plays (Goethe’s “Egmont” and Ibsen’s “Peer Gynt,” respectively) that are largely unknown to audience members today.
What’s more, even when it’s written by certified Great Composers, incidental music can be hard to program well. These works rarely hold the stage as concert works by the same composers do, and listening to incidental music can feel a bit like visiting an exhibition of lavish costumes from opera productions past — we admire the handiwork, the colors, the sheen. But, separate from creations that gave them life, is there enough here to deliver the jolt of a fresh artistic experience?
Associate conductor Ken-David Masur would clearly answer in the affirmative, and he is taking the more-is-more approach to programming this week. The BSO has also admirably gotten behind his idea by enlisting writer and director Bill Barclay to help flesh out the night’s premise by creating a new theatrical reimagining of Ibsen’s “Peer Gynt,” presented here in a fully staged performance.
As it turned out, on Thursday night, the results of this worthy programming experiment were somewhat uneven. Beethoven’s overture for Goethe’s “Egmont” remains a beloved staple of the concert hall, but the string of entr’actes that follow are shorter and, by the very nature of their conception, disconnected. On Thursday a few passing moments of ensemble blur added to the impression that this was a performance still searching for its raison d’etre. That said, there were admirable solo contributions by oboist Keisuke Wakao, the actor Will Lyman (who recited the “Süsser Schlaf” or “Sweet sleep” from “Egmont”), and the soprano Camilla Tilling, whose rendering of Klärchen’s Song was easily the highlight of this first half.
Ibsen’s “Peer Gynt” premiered in 1876, and its five acts track the eponymous hero, a charismatic scamp (played on Thursday by Caleb Mayo), in his travels across the globe. The play has elements of a fairy tale anthology (peopled by kings and trolls), a bildungsroman (Peer’s formative quest to discover his true self), and a kind of proto-Freudian morality play (will that rogue ever move beyond the pleasure principle?).
For his part, Barclay faced a tall order in boiling down Ibsen’s five hours of action to a 60-minute “Gynt”-inspired stagework, one that conveys something of the spirit of Ibsen’s original while also providing contexts for Grieg’s incidental music, which is known today almost exclusively through two popular orchestral suites.
What the director came up with is something of a macaronic mixture of classical drama, folkloristic fantasy, cabaret-style archness, and wink-winking 21st-century irony. These elements don’t always sit easily together. But I can happily report that Masur and the orchestra raised their game in the Grieg by several notches, that the Tanglewood Festival Chorus was a vibrant presence, and that Tilling’s performances of Solveig’s Song and Solveig’s Lullaby, with their gleaming tone and beautiful purity of line, took the evening, albeit briefly, to an entirely different place.
BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
Ken-David Masur, conductor
At Symphony Hall, Thursday (repeats Friday, Saturday, and Tuesday, Oct. 20, 21, and 24)Jeremy Eichler can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @Jeremy_Eichler