What to listen for: Obsidian Tear

Boston Ballet Staff

Image courtesy of danielpatrickstewart.com

Dive into the music that brings Obsidian Tear to life with guest conductor Daniel Stewart and find out what to listen for when the curtain rises on this musically-rich program.

Royal Ballet Artists in Wayne McGregor's Obsidian Tear ©ROH 2016

Photo credit: Andrej Uspenski

Boston Ballet Orchestra

Photo credit: Ernesto Galan

Royal Ballet Artists in Wayne McGregor's Obsidian Tear ©ROH 2016

Photo credit: Andrej Uspenski

Boston Ballet Orchestra

Photo credit: Ernesto Galan

Daniel Stewart is the Music Director of the Santa Cruz Symphony and joins Boston Ballet for the first time on this program of music by Jean Sibelius and Esa-Pekka Salonen. These two composers mark the earliest and most recent points of the timeline of Finnish classical music. For Stewart, their work shares "many qualities of elemental urgency...and an extraordinary trajectory of line, of melodic arc and development that is very surprising and fun from an unsuspecting listener’s point of view."
 
The program begins with an instrumental performance of Finlandia, a tone poem that is Jean Sibelius’ most popular short work. A tone poem (or symphonic poem) is an orchestral work that evokes a story, image or feeling for the listener. Originally composed as the closing of a historical pageant, Finlandia was written to arouse patriotic feelings. "Sibelius’ music tends to gradually envelop the listener through a specially-structured emotional momentum, paired with heartwarmingly folkloric feelings of goodwill," comments Stewart.

Two of Esa-Pekka Salonen’s works are joined to create the score for Obsidian Tear. The piece begins in silence before the strains of a solo violin join the two dancers onstage. The title Lachen verlernt (or Laughing Unlearnt) is a quote from the vocal work Pierrot Lunaire by Arnold Schoenberg, a fantastical story in which the narrator prays to Pierrot, the moonstruck clown, to give her back the skill of laughter. Salonen uses repeating harmonic progressions to structure a wildly varied and compact composition for solo violin. Guest artist Christine Vitale will perform the "furious and strangely gorgeous" piece, full of "impressive virtuoso flourishes on open strings, fancy scale work and passages thick with chords" (Mark Swed, Los Angeles Times).

Image courtesy of danielpatrickstewart.com

Stewart first met Salonen, who is internationally celebrated for both his composition and conducting, when Stewart served as his assistant conductor with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl in 2013. But he’d been familiar with Salonen’s Nyx since 2011, when he worked on the U.S. premiere of the work at Carnegie Hall with the Atlanta Symphony. "I instantly found, and still find it to be a wildly compelling, exciting, and endlessly fascinating work. One of my very favorite pieces of contemporary art," says Stewart.

Here we have another tone poem, this one evoking Nyx, the Greek goddess of night. For Stewart, "the pervasive element in Nyx is an overarching sense of mystery, punctuated by episodes of extreme sensuality, strength, and agility." Salonen describes the piece as full of "spaces—musical spaces which the listener wanders in between," with plenty of room for interpretation about where this shadowy goddess might be heard.

Jean Sibelius was rising to international prominence in the early 20th century as Finland struggled for independence from Russia, and in the aftermath he helped shape a new national identity through his music, particularly his Fifth Symphony. According to Stewart, "the personal perspective is far more removed from the Fifth Symphony, and replaced with an ever stronger sense of Zen-like removal from human narrative; an objective, yet emotionally resonant perspective on Nature and her myriad rhythms, courses, and processes."

Nature figures heavily in Sibelius’ inspiration for the most iconic theme of the symphony: an endless ostinato, continually repeated in the brass. He wrote in his diary, "Today at ten to eleven I saw 16 swans. One of my greatest experiences! Lord God, what beauty! They circled over me for a long time. Disappeared into the solar haze like a gleaming silver ribbon. Their call the same woodwind type as that of cranes, but without tremolo...A low-pitched refrain reminiscent of a small child crying. Nature mysticism and life’s angst! The Fifth Symphony’s finale-theme: legato in the trumpets!"

You can hear to the full musical program here and then experience it live as we kick off our 2017–2018 season with Obsidian Tear, Nov 3–12.

The illusion we create is intended to deepen your understanding of reality.

Mikko Nissinen, Artistic Director
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