Two birthdays, the 80th of Conductor Emeritus Bernard Haitink and the 70th of flutist Sir James Galway, were celebrated by the Boston Symphony on Friday, November 21, with colorful and evocative performances of Debussy’s Nocturnes, Ibert’s Flute Concerto, and Brahms’ Symphony No. 1.
Maestro Haitink may betray his octogenarian status during his walks to and from the podium, but as my listening companion (herself a nonagenarian) said, “On the podium he knows no age.” He conducted without drama and allowed the orchestra to play the music without over-directing it. Often his left hand would flutter towards a musician or section, indicating at times more intensity, at times less, and in the last moments of Debussy’s “Fetes,” evoking a single last haunting shiver in the cymbal. The orchestra responded with fluid, nuanced sound that was always changing, always modulating in color and timbre.
The Debussy opened with the dark, haunting voice of the English horn, played so beautifully by Robert Sheena. “Nuages” indeed: clouds, mists, and fog filled the hall with ever-shifting wisps of sound, penetrated occasionally by various orchestral voices: the nuanced, velvet viola solo of Steven Ansell; the eerie harp and flute (Elizabeth Rowe and Jessica Zhou), so perfectly entwined they sounded like one never-before-imagined instrument. “Fêtes” swept away every vestige of grayness, strings and brass telegraphing excitement across the stage. About halfway through the movement Debussy creates a driving ostinato that would be reminiscent of “Bolero” except that Bolero wasn’t written until 1928. (Nocturnes was first performed in 1900.) One has to wonder whether Ravel had this work somewhere in his mind when he created his most famous opus.
The final movement, “Sirenes,” seemed a little out of balance because the women’s chorus was off-stage and sometimes covered by the orchestra; one wished for more presence from the wordless voices. But Haitink knew how to build the sound from all the disparate parts of the score, and layer by layer, created a compelling canvas that was vivid and coherent. At one point, Haitink and the orchestra created the sensation of drifting at sea without direction, and the moment the wind sprang up and filled the sails was palpable, and unmistakable. At the conclusion, Haitink gave many well-deserved solo bows to the musicians, and on his last return to the stage he indicated another bow for the English horn player Robert Sheena, by patting his shoulder as he walked by.
The Ibert flute concerto followed, a piece of great virtuosity, humor and energy. Sir James Galway delivered all these qualities with unflappable aplomb, bringing the audience to appreciative chuckles for his flutter-tongue, faster-than-light scales and tongue-in-cheek musical wit. One can’t imagine him having ever played better — or anyone else playing better for that matter. The orchestra seemed to have a hard time keeping up at certain points, and clearly what was virtuosic for the flute was heroic when attempted by the strings. The audience rewarded Galway with many bravos and much applause, which seemed even stronger the last time he took a bow, as though this round of applause was for his lifetime of musical achievement.
After intermission, the Gallic gave way to the Teutonic, and it took a little while for one’s ears to adjust to the change. In the first movement of the Brahms 1st Symphony, there seemed to be a different orchestra playing entirely, one that didn’t bend phrases, but instead brought out the massive contrapuntal building blocks of the music. (It’s amazing to realize that Debussy’s “Nocturnes” were composed only 20 years after this symphony of Brahms. France and Germany must have sprung from separate Creations.) There was wonderful solo playing in this performance, including the beautiful, rich sonority and expressivity of the oboe (John Ferrillo); Malcolm Lowe’s splendid violin solos; the whole horn section; the achingly pure flute in the beginning of the last movement (Elizabeth Rowe), and many more. It was a rich performance, moving and monumental, and the audience gave the players and Maestro Haitink well-earned cheers and a long ovation.