in: Reviews

January 8, 2010

BSO, Ma Light on Their Toes under Koopman

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The question of the day for Boston Symphony audiences coming to hear it perform Haydn, CPE Bach and Schubert under the direction of Baroque specialist Ton Koopman is, how does a late-19th-century-style band like the BSO respond to the original-instruments esthetic? The answer, as demonstrated at the January 7 performance at Symphony Hall, is “admirably.” The next question might be, how does a catgut-loving conductor like Koopman achieve a sonically downscaled result from such a Big-Noise-From-Winnetka (that’s Winnetka-on-Huntington) ensemble? Answer: by scaling back the orchestra’s numbers (for the Haydn 98th Symphony to less than half the full size it might get from a standard performance), by canning the vibrato, and by other shrewd stratagems detailed below.

Yo-Yo Ma performs with the BSO on Thursday night (Michael J. Lutch)

Ton Koopman conducts the Boston Symphony Orchestra (Michael J. Lutch)

The opener was, as noted, Haydn Symphony No. 98, in B flat, the last of the composer’s first set of Salomon (or London) symphonies, and thus one of his late and most popular masterpieces. This one, though, is one of the lesser performed—the last BSO go at it was almost 40 years ago—yet it is among his most emotionally ambitious. Many commentators have viewed it as Haydn’s tribute to the just-deceased Mozart. In this piece, as with almost everything on the program, Koopman chose consistently brisk tempi. The first movement was over in a flash, even with all repeats, so you really had to be alert to the concise musical argument above all Haydn’s other virtues of both overt and sly wit. The Adagio, which Marc Mandel’s program note singled out for its Mozartian—specifically Jupiterian—qualities (despite a theme that seems to be a riff on “God Save the King”), amply showed how Koopman could let the music speak for itself without troweling on sentimental languors. The minuet also showed another of Koopman’s little tricks: propulsion through brilliant dynamic manipulation, especially a squeeze of sound over a short span somewhere between a crescendo and a sforzando. Your correspondent’s companion expressed a desire to inspect the musicians’ parts for mark-ups: “Those dynamics weren’t in the published score!” But they were perfect. Unlike most Haydn symphonies, this one was back-loaded with a finale of even greater depth and substance than its first movement; perhaps another tribute to Mozart? Koopman, it must be reported, duly fired the gun in Act IV that had been onstage since Act I, namely by playing the solo harpsichord passage Haydn had written for himself at the end of the finale, the only use of the instrument from which Koopman conducted the symphony.

The star solo turn for the evening was given by that paradigmatic star soloist, Yo-Yo Ma, in Haydn’s C major cello concerto. This was a piece written some 25 years before the symphony, thus—and even instructively within itself—showing the transition from Rococo to Classical style. Since its rediscovery in 19601, this has become an enormously popular piece, full of fabulous tunes, tender sentiment and bravura solos. Ma has given it a great deal of attention over the entirety of his career, and yet this performance was absolutely the best this listener has ever heard, the soloist sailing on clouds of Haydnly bliss. One suspects that Ma thought so himself, from his delighted and energetic embrace of just about everyone around him during the tumultuous, on-your-feet ovation that followed. Conductor and soloist were seemingly mind-melded throughout, matching subtleties of dynamics to rhythmic bounce to heartfelt but not overblown affect.

Yo-Yo Ma performs with the BSO on Thursday night (Michael J. Lutch)

Yo-Yo Ma performs with the BSO (Michael J. Lutch)

The second half of the program began with one of the relatively few and somewhat reluctantly composed symphonies by Carl Philip Emanuel Bach, in this case the G major, Wq. 183 #4, amazingly a BSO premiere—this orchestra has only ever done one other CPE Bach symphony, over 30 years ago. The work itself is a classic exposition of Bach’s fascinating compositional quirks—the dramatic pauses, the oddly shaped phrases, the roller-coaster dynamics. All of these Koopman and his born-again classicists brought off with enormous panache, from the heart of Koopman County.

Compared to the stripped-back forces employed in the 18th-century works on the program, Schubert’s B minor “Unfinished” Symphony presented the aspect of Mahler: clarinets! trombones! vibrato! Just as the Haydn concerto limned the borderland between Rococo and Classical, the Schubert showed the phasing in of Romanticism. Koopman’s approach, as throughout, was to allow the music to play itself (or seem to). Here the fast tempi struck the one slightly false note, as it was quite hard to distinguish the first movement’s Allegro moderato from the slow movement’s Andante con moto. Otherwise the exquisitely accurate, tight and concise performance was designed to highlight whence Schubert came, stylistically, rather than whither he was heading. Not at all a bad thing to do with so familiar a masterwork.

If you can make it to any of the other performances in this run, you should expend the effort.

Vance R. Koven studied music at Queens College and New England Conservatory, and law at Harvard. A composer and practicing attorney, he was for many years the chairman of Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble.

1 Comment

  1. Your editor cannot resist the urge to add a comment to Mr. Koven’s superb review. When I peered down on the players, I noticed that Alexander Velinson, assistant concertmaster, was in the concertmaster’s chair, with Lucia Lin beside him, and in the first cellist’s chair was Mihail Jojatu. No Concertmaster, no Associate Concertmaster, for either section. Velinson gave us the violin solos, and Jojatu the continuo. The forty-odd number of players is in keeping with a Baroque-era ensemble, of course. But just as important, the performance showed how well all those “lesser” lights shine.

    Comment by Bettina A. Norton, executive editor — January 9, 2010 at 10:59 am

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