“Ascending Light,” written for organ and orchestra, was commissioned by the Gomidas Organ Fund in honor of its founder, the late Armenian-American organist Berj Zamkochian (1929-2004) and to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide. Zamkocian made several recordings as the organ soloist with the BSO and taught on the faculty of the New England Conservatory, where Michael Gandolfi currently teaches.
According to the program notes, part of “Ascending Light” was inspired by a sacred Armenian choral piece entitle “Aravot Lousabe” which translates as “Ascending Light” and by an Armenian folk song known as the “Lullaby of Tigranakert.” On the whole, Gandolfi’s music did not stray from a harmonic center, opening with slow drum beats and grand chords from the orchestra and the organ, which featured Frenchman Olivier Latry at the keyboard. After the massive tonal collage dwindled away, simple lines ascended from the organ and were joined at the top by silken strings. Interweaving phrases, were exchanged between the orchestra and the organ before the pounding chords of the opening statement returned. The following warm, legato section established a lull that was broken up by an edgy call from the French horns, which kicked the orchestra into a driving, brassy rhythmic passage and another stretch of massive chords. Later, a dramatic cutoff cleared the floor for the organ, and that was when Latry played a theme that sounded distinctly Armenian. Plaintive piccolo, mournful horns and lower strings suggested sadness, but out of that emerged tones from the harp that climbed heavenward. A return to the pounding drums and massive chordal motif sealed the finale.
With the organ console right next to Nelson’s podium, Latry held the spotlight with his agile playing, impeccably playing his solo passages and blending the sound of the organ with the orchestra even when cranking up the volume. His efforts and the orchestra as a whole received enthusiastic applause from the audience.
After intermission, the orchestra and Nelsons returned to the stage to play Mahler’s Sixth Symphony. Shaping the Mahler Sixth into a coherent performance must be one of the most difficult undertakings for any conductor because the 90-minute long piece has so many high peaks and low valleys. Just when the music seemed to reach a climax, it tapered off or segued into soothing passages before it gathered steam once again to climb onto another incredibly loud mountain of sound. The steady tread of drums became and the emotional rollercoaster of the music was relentless –with the exception of the second movement (“Andante moderato”) which was gentle and almost mild in comparison
The French horn section, led by principal James Sommerville, played with panache. Principal tubist Mike Roylance created tonal depth charges of despair and the bass violins (nine!) grumbled with terrific force. Concertmaster Malcom Lowe performed each of his exposed passages impeccably.
Nelsons whipped up the orchestra with a variety of full-body gestures that would have made Mahler proud. Nelsons urged on his colleagues by crouching down to the level of his music stand, leaping, lunging, using hands only, switching the baton to his left hand while guiding with his right, and using his fingers for trills. Once in a while, he appeared to be caught in an awkward moment like a basketball player completing a layup on the wrong foot. But nothing slowed him down or got in the way. The final anguished notes lingered for a while before the audience broke into applause and cheers. It was a triumphant end of a long, wild , and sometimes mind-numbing emotional journey.
PS: I greeted Adam Esbensen, BSO cellist, just after he came back on stage for the second half of the performance. Many readers may recall that Esbensen was member of the Oregon Symphony and was active with other ensembles in and around Portland before he joined the BSO.