IN: Reviews

Transparency, Clarity, Detail in BSO Concerts with Finnish Guest


Conductor Susanna Mälkki visited Boston last week for three concerts with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, deputizing for Yuri Temirkanov who has cancelled all of his U.S. appearances. I attended the April 25 concert.

Ms. Mälkki evinced a clear, authoritative beat on the podium, to which the BSO responded with an uncommon clarity of line and transparency of texture, ideally suited to the program the maestra had brought with her:  Stravinsky’s Suite from Pulcinella (1920) in its 1947 revision, the same composer’s Symphony in C (1940), Büsser’s 1907 orchestration of Debussy’s Petite Suite (1889, originally scored for piano four-hands), and Ravel’s 1919 orchestration of four movements of his beguiling Le Tombeau de Couperin, written originally for piano solo two years earlier.

The Ravel opened the program, and signaled an evening of virtuosic oboe playing from the orchestra’s first desk player John Ferrillo.  The first movement, taken at a relaxed tempo, worked well and avoided the sense of scurrying that can invade if a more rapid tempo is adopted.  Ferrillo and 1st Clarinet William Hudkins were of one mind and matched timbres as they traded off their spiraling arpeggii.  Similar woodwind felicities were heard throughout the work, with the BSO’s elegant strings contributing their special luster.  Particularly affecting were the magical endings of movements one and three – in the first, the whirling, plunging downward motion answered by high fluttering trills, in the third, the sheer, tear-inducing beauty of Ravel’s orchestration of the final measures left one breathless.  Ms. Mälkki knew what she wanted – orchestras like this – and the BSO gave her undivided attention.

Stravinsky’s Pulcinella Suite followed, and had the affect of a bracing cold shower, as music from this period of Stravinsky’s neo-classical creativity can often engender.  Careful dynamic shading, pungent accents of dissonance, abrupt tempo changes were all handled expertly, and one was once again impressed with this composer’s wonderful ear for orchestration.  The rollicking final movement brought the concert’s first half to an energetic close.

Henri Büsser’s orchestration of Claude Debussy’s Petite Suite is very popular, though I find it un-Debussyian-sounding, despite the composer’s claim that his handiwork was “…in the style of Debussy.”  I miss the overall clarity of line and the less-is-more approach to instrumental color Debussy so effortlessly and regularly achieves.  That being said, Ms. Mälkki and the BSO gave a performance of this pleasant hybrid that was probably as good as one could hope for.

The program closed with a probing performance of Stravinsky’s  Symphony in C.  The BSO’s playing here was spot-on – strong, incisive, and calm when required.  Only the slightly less-than-perfect entrances of the winds in the treacherously scored final moments of the Symphony’s closing measures cast a slight shadow on what was in sum a wonderful performance.

During her curtain calls after the concert, the BSO showed unusual enthusiasm for Ms. Mälkki, evidence of their respect and affection for her music-making in this interesting and cannily programmed concert.  One hopes we’ll hear more from this talented musician.

John W. Ehrlich is music director of Spectrum Singers, which he founded 29 years ago. He has been a singer and conductor in the Boston area for more than 30 years.

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