in: Reviews

September 26, 2009

Pilot Shows Her Skill in Williams Commission, BSO Season Starts with Standing Ovations

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The Boston Symphony Orchestra opened its 2009-2010 season with a gala concert at Symphony Hall on Wednesday, September 23.  It began with an exuberant rendition of Hector Berlioz’s Roman Carnival Overture. The opening night audience was unusually vocal in showing its appreciation which extended into standing ovations for all of the evening’s pieces.

Next came Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in F minor with Evgeny Kissin in a commanding performance, clean and controlled. The melody, played with ease and clarity, lacked the lyricism one is accustomed to hearing. The woodwinds in their readjustment to the new season were most effective in the second movement.  Special mention must be noted of Richard Sebring’s excellent horn call leading into the final coda. Mr. Kissin’s encore, an arrangement by Franz Liszt of  Schubert’s Valse Caprice, was freer with more ebb and flow and a playfulness not evident in the concerto.

The centerpiece of the concert was On Willows and Birches, a concerto for harp by John Williams that was commissioned by the BSO to honor retiring harpist Ann Hobson Pilot. Mr. Williams’s gift is to write music that is both accessible and profound. Best known for his work in film, he has made outstanding contributions to the classical repertoire with concerti that he has written in collaboration with many great soloists, including Yo-Yo Ma (Cello Concerto, Memoirs of a Geisha),  Itzhak Perlman (Schindler’s List), Gil Shaham (Tree Song), Judith Le Clair (Five Sacred Trees for bassoon), Michael Sachs (Trumpet Concerto),  Dale Clevenger (Horn Concerto), and now three concerti for BSO players — Chester Schmitz (tuba), Cathy Basrak (viola), and Ms. Pilot.

Mr. Williams, aware of the technical challenges and the problems with balance between harp and a 100-piece orchestra, was reluctant at first to write a harp concerto. Like Maurice Ravel, one of the greatest orchestrators, he learned his craft by consulting directly with masters of each instrument.

On Willows and Birches continues with his recurring theme inspired by trees. The first movement, “On Willows,” opens with an adagio designated to be played “dreamily.” The subtle rubato is served by a pulse which waivers frequently and sometimes imperceptibly between duple and triple meter. It is delicately orchestrated — almost like chamber music. The percussion instruments, which include crotales and glass bowl, are gently used for color and support. The first movement, which began pianissimo, ends a niente (“to nothing”). The second movement, “On Birches,” sparkles with rhythmic energy, this time dancing between duple and triple time. The direction calls for brilliance and joy. The voicing of the harp part, with middle register chords and quick glissandi, enables it to be heard above an orchestration substantially increased in size and volume by adding more percussion, timpani, brass and double bass.  Like Ravel, Williams has created one of a handful of masterpieces for solo harp — idiomatic and never awkward.

Ms. Pilot, whose playing has been consistently strong, confident, with impeccable rhythmic sense and accuracy, performed with sensitivity and expression that is evident of a musician enriched by experience and maturity. She has stated that after 40 years with the BSO, it was important that she retire before her playing went “downhill.” Indeed, she has had a brilliant career and is leaving at the height of her mastery.

The final piece of the concert was La Mer by Claude Debussy. Under James Levine, the ensemble was tight, the interpretation exciting. All voices were clearly heard. Outstanding among them were Robert Sheena intriguing on English horn, Thomas Rolfs’ crystalline trumpet playing, and Ms. Pilot’s successor, the new principal harpist, Jessica Zhou.

Elizabeth Morse, principal harpist of the Berkshire Symphony Orchestra and formally principal harpist of Rhode Island Philharmonic, is on the faculty of Williams College.

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