Bernard Haitink returned to the BSO podium last night (April 22) and led with masterful technique, elegant style, and full understanding an unusual and rewarding program, which “on paper” had seemed somewhat unadventursome. And the drama of yet another last-minute program change added to the evening’s excitement.
Excitement? Assuredly! By now one takes for granted that our BSO will play beautifully, and so it was last night. But when Maestro Haitink is on the podium, the bar is raised yet again. His walk to the podium is a little slower these days, and he looks a bit more frail, but not a whit of that mattered once he turned to face the orchestra and commandingly gestured to the players that he was ready to make music. With one flick of his wrist to garner their attention, it was evident, even before his initial downbeat, that the orchestra was going to give him exactly what he wanted.
One can opine at great length what makes a great conductor. Last night, all one had to do was watch and listen. Along with his elegant and clear baton technique, Haitink brings an old-world knowledge base to his music making which can be sensed and heard from the very moment bows are put to strings. He opened his concert with the rarely heard Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, Orchestral Suite, Opus 60, a 1920-vintage work by Richard Strauss, and scored for a smaller-than-usual-for-him orchestra. The music is charming, full of homage to music penned by Jean-Baptiste Lully who was in some ways the inspiration behind Strauss’s score, though many other influences and inspirations are alluded to, as was thoroughly explained in Michael Steinberg’s eloquent program note. The Suite is in nine movements, and each offered a platform for the virtuoso musicians of the BSO to strut their stuff. The perky Overture was a bit soft-grained and less “etched” than Fritz Reiner’s famous recording with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, but yielded nothing in charm and virtuosity to that storied band. Flautist Elizabeth Rowe was especially elegant and coy in her Minuet solos, and in “The Fencing Master” movement bold and extrovert solos were heard from Thomas Rolfs, trumpet, Toby Oft, trombone, Richard Sebring, horn, and Randall Hodgkinson, piano. BSO Concertmaster Malcolm Lowe was the dashing soloist in the polonaise “Dance of the Tailors,” oboist John Ferrillo and Elizabeth Rowe traded phrases beautifully in “The Minuet of Lully,” the exquisitely scored Entrance of Cléonte was ravishingly played, and the culminating movement “The Dinner,” amusingly spiked with reminiscences of earlier Straussian compositions was distinguished by a beautiful cello solo played by Assistant Principal Martha Babcock, who has been a pillar of strength all season while her colleague Jules Eskin has been on sabbatical.
Evident throughout this performance was Haitink’s masterful understanding and sense of the piece. His lovely shaping of instrumental lines and their tapering at the ends of phrases was especially beautiful to hear, as it was all evening.
After intermission, BSO Principal Horn James Somerville stepped on stage with Maestro Haitink to perform Mozart’s delightful Concerto No. 2 in E-flat, K. 417. It had been announced earlier to the press and also with a leaflet inserted into the program book that Mr. Somerville’s appearance was due to the unfortunate absence of violinist Leonidas Kavakos who was unable to travel from Europe due to the ash-cloud mischief created by Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokull volcano. While it surely would have been pleasant to hear Mr. Kavakos, Somerville played with such eloquence and sensitivity that one was actually grateful for the substitution. His approach to the Concerto was less bravura than some other players, but his sensitivity to nuance, especially apparent in the first movement, was salutary and heartwarming. Showing no strain at all with Mozart’s musical requirements, Somerville played with aplomb and assurance, ever supported along the way by Haitink’s attention to orchestral detail so often glossed over by lesser accompanists. At the Concerto’s end, his on-stage colleagues abetted the audience’s grateful ovation for Somerville. Hatink, too, seemed pleased, affectionately clapping the soloist on the back as the two protagonists walked to the stage door.
The “Haffner” Symphony No. 35 in D K. 386 by Mozart is surely one of this composer’s most wondrous symphonic creations. It abounds with irresistible energy, lovely melody, brief though affecting Mozartean melancholy, and ultimate exultant joy. Written, reluctantly we’re told, by the composer who at the time complained to his father that he was just too busy to write another symphony, the resulting music is a virtuoso miracle of light and optimism. All of Haitink’s strengths alluded to earlier were in evidence in this performance.
What an innovative and extrovert first movement this symphony enjoys! Haitink’s tempo was ideal, allowing the BSO’s famed string section to romp through the cascading up-and-down scales with apparent ease. The “Andante” was taken at a quicker-than-usual pace which perfectly matched the charming, serenade-like sections and permitted the requisite contrast with the momentarily darker oboe and clarinet interjections of the movement’s middle. The “Menuetto and Trio” continued the light and courtly feel, effectively preparing “Finale: Presto,” whose infectious zest spread from player to player, and ultimately to the audience, which, at the movement’s end, stood and offered up well-deserved bravos.
Bravos for a Mozart Symphony? Yes, indeed, when played so well and conducted so professionally and artfully by a great musician. When called back to the stage for a third curtain call, Haitink asked the orchestra to stand with him. They demurred and offered an ovation of their own in a show of deep respect and gratitude for what their Conductor Emeritus had brought to them that evening, and, more importantly, what he had brought to Mozart and Strauss.
This program repeats today, Saturday and Tuesday. Attend, if you can, and witness great music making. You’ll not be disappointed.