Russian conductor Vasily Petrenko cannily chose brilliant music of his countrymen for his Boston Symphony Orchestra debut concerts October 8, 9, and 10, and the results achieved what every new BSO guest conductor would hope for: respect from his players and robust enthusiasm from his audience. Only a couple of tiny glitches kept this program from achieving the very topmost tier.
Petrenko’s star is clearly on the rise, and it is notable that his 2006 appointment as Principal Conductor of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra has twice been extended, the latest until 2015, and he has also been awarded the orchestra’s “Chief Conductor” title. No small feat for a 33-year old, and kudos to the BSO management for offering us a look at him early in his career.
Petrenko’s technique reminds me of another great Russian maestro, Gennady Rozhdestvensky, whose unusual stick maneuverings demonstrate expressively sinuous sculpting of phrases. Whatever one makes of this, Petrenko was in full control from the first few measures of Stravinsky’s early (op. 3, 1908) Scherzo Fantastique. It is a shimmering and kaleidoscopically colored workout played to a fare-thee-well by the BSO, a work they had encountered only three times (first in 1970) in their long history with this composer. Other correspondents have noted the score’s debt to Rimsky-Korsakov, and the composer has added that it also was influenced by Debussy, Tchaikovsky, Dukas, and even Wagner (!). I hear the Dukas, and I’ll add that the work’s expressive middle section showed clearly Ravelian harmonies. The huge orchestra sported three harps, and the overall effect was alternately filamentous, transparent, colorful and virtuosic. Obviously a fiendish piece to play, the Orchestra betrayed no strain whatsoever, and with Petrenko’s clear and concise shepherding, a brilliant reading was achieved.
Next came Sergei Rachmaninoff’s brooding and darkly hued Isle of the Dead, a symphonic poem taking its inspiration from an enigmatic and unsettling painting of the same title by Swiss artist Arnold Böcklin. So obsessed was Böcklin with his subject – a white-shrouded figure stands behind a draped coffin as an oarsman rows them toward a dolorous, crypt-studded island – that the artist painted the scene five times. The compelling image appealed to Rachmaninoff’s innately gloomy view of most things, and the music which resulted is one of his finest purely orchestral achievements.
In similar obsession throughout the work, the music almost constantly rocks to and fro in 5/8 meter, sometimes 3+2, sometimes 2+3, perhaps illustrating the lapping of water against the boat’s hull, or more likely the oarsman’s row-strokes. Superbly orchestrated, the music grows first toward a powerful and desolate fortissimo climax, its impactful arrival pushing forward the surging 5/8 asymmetry of the melody. Shortly, a completely different theme appears, a soaring and hopeful phrase laden with melancholy remembrance, that reaches a lofty and seemingly triumphant second climax. But it is not to be – the lofty heights soon give way to a downward-spiraling crash, ending with a set of pounding triplets from the full orchestra, effectively clubbing any hope of redemption into submission. And if one should harbor any doubt of the outcome of this, Rachmaninoff invokes his oft-heard use of the Dies Irae chant, whose notes and text are known to signal death and destruction. From this point, after two hopeful, beautiful but ultimately short-lived violin and oboe solos, the work slowly fades into the darkness of the brooding seascape.
Petrenko consistently found the appropriate balance of tempo and instrumental color, which tellingly enhanced the poetic and story-telling character of his interpretation. Of the many highlights, the black-velvet, perfectly tuned and timed brass chorale entrances in the later minutes of the work remain poignantly clear in memory. Interestingly, the BSO had not performed this masterwork in Symphony Hall since 1945. The music’s return was long overdue and very welcome, especially in such an expert performance as this.
The concert’s second half offered Dimitri Shostakovich’s massive and at times emotionally enigmatic 1953 Symphony No. 10 in E-Minor, op. 93. Only at its end does it triumphantly repudiate the oppression the composer felt, as did virtually all Soviet artists at the time, the brutal dictatorship of Josef Stalin. A huge work, which encompasses many deeply felt emotions of grief, anger, and the ultimate triumph of the soul, the 10th Symphony is regarded as among the composer’s most important works for orchestra, and a watershed moment in Soviet symphonism. Petrenko, conducting with a score but clearly mostly from memory, led a memorable performance, in which the present fine estate of the BSO’s deep strings and all its woodwinds was very much in evidence. William Hudgin’s cheerfully burbling clarinet in the symphony’s final movement, and his duet with fellow traveler Thomas Martin in the work’s opening movement were astonishing in their accuracy and elegantly tapered phrasings. Timpanist Timothy Genis reminded us throughout, and especially at the music’s powerful end, how fortunate we are to have him. A tiny bit of brass insecurity (rarely-heard early entrances in both horn and tuba) only lightly distracted for a couple of seconds from the overall powerful exposition of this 20th century touchstone of a symphony. Smiles pervaded the orchestra as Petrenko acknowledged the audience’s cheers at the end, a happy Symphony Hall evening for all concerned, and an auspicious debut for a talented young conductor.