IN: Reviews

Truly “Applausive” Night at BSO under Robertson


What there was for take-away from the Boston Symphony Orchestra concert on Thursday, October 28 would take more than a few pages to document. Conductor David Robertson and pianist Nicolas Hodges and virtually every instrument in the orchestra had something to say in a rare and truly “applausive” night at Symphony Hall.

Known for programming newer works, Robertson, who just entered his sixth season as music director of the Saint Louis Symphony, has been honored with a host of awards, the Ditson Conductor’s Award and Morton Gould Award for Innovative Programming, among others. His growing number of recordings on major record labels also includes his recent recording of “Doctor Atomic” Symphony, the first-ever of that work.

Unfilled seats in Symphony Hall — not all that many, by the way — were also a tell-tale, if not promising, sign of one of those rare nights in store for the expectant concert-goers in attendance. Hold onto your seats!

Opening with Tragic Overture of Johannes Brahms, Robertson immediately took to an always visible physicality on the podium. His is not at all an inward study in conducting, as with the likes of a Levine or Boulez. With sweeping arms, head-long glances all around the orchestra, among a variety of other gestures, there is, at all times, an explicitly expressive motion to his most appealing personal, natural style. Each and every move beckons response. The observing listener may follow him along right into the very music itself.

Robertson’s Brahms stayed in motion, especially through crisp and stately march-like passages set off against flowing lines always undulating through myriad shapes of crescendos and decrescendos. This infrequently heard overture does not always persuade, though, as do the master’s other works. But this vibrantly shaped performance tuned us to details in foreground as well as background instrumentation.

Having seen the opera of John Adams, I could not wait to hear his “Doctor Atomic” Symphony. Disappointingly, momentum in the former did not carry over into the latter. The composer, himself, tells of his struggle pulling music out of one idiom and putting it into another very different one. Despite this, or because of Adams having written solos for instruments that we do not often have the chance to hear, an abundance of unreserved hoots and hollers peppered the applause from all around the hall. Taking bows were principals James Somerville, horn, Mike Roylance, tuba, and Thomas Rolfs, trumpet, who carried his extended solo (taking up much of the last movement, entitled “Trinity”) into a golden redemptive mood. Throughout Adams’s symphonic re-casting, the composer’s huge personality loomed. But while the piece’s timbral and textural life, powerfully realized by the BSO brass and percussion in particular, pinned us to his always imaginative score of some twenty-five minutes, the rhythmic underpinning for this uninterrupted symphony in three parts remained puzzling.

Forty-year-old pianist Nicolas Hodges made his Boston Symphony Orchestra debut in a gripping interpretation of Prokofiev’s youthfully charged and virtuosic Piano Concerto No. 2 (performed by the composer with the BSO in 1930). Born in London and committed to performing newer music, Hodges matched immense range of piano expression with vast technical prowess. The lovely g-minor melody of the first movement over muted strings of the orchestra bathed in an absolutely out-of-this-world sonic warmth.

Hodges harnessed Prokofiev’s musically and idiomatically over-sized, often dense, solos. Only the second movement, the vivace Scherzo that has the pianist making octaves in a high-speed 16th-note perpetual motion for some two minutes, left this listener wanting more piano volume and rhythmic dash. Exceptional sense and poetry from soloist and orchestra in all the other movements put their rendering into a category all its own. It was intellectually and sonically satisfying.

An absolutely maniacal hang-on-to-your seat delivery from Robertson and the BSO of Bartók’s Suite from The Miraculous Mandarin brought the program to a whirlwind close. Low brass wildly proclaimed the entrance of the Mandarin. Principal clarinetist, William R. Hudgins, led his team of clarinets through several seductive passages with suave enticement. Principal trombonist, Toby Oft, pronounced the repetitive opening calls boldly, forebodingly.  As it came to the ending, Robertson and the BSO ratcheted up more decibels, putting a wildly exclamation point on a performance that went, yes, through the roof! With the Bartók, the entire BSO and Robertson came up with a blockbuster!

Taking a word out of a 1930s Boston Herald article on display in the lobby, an “applausive” audience was on hand for reveling in newer things in a rare program of concert music.

David Patterson, Professor of Music and former Chairman of the Performing Arts Department at UMass Boston,  was recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Award and the Chancellor’s Distinction in  Teaching Award. He studied with Nadia Boulanger and Olivier  Messiaen in Paris and holds a PhD from Harvard University.


5 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. I just came from the Saturday night performance of this program. I don’t blame anyone for having trouble with a piece as hard as the Prokofiev, but to me it looks like Hodges didn’t put in the full effort. He was playing from the score, and was so shaky I was afraid he would have to stop at many points during the piece. During the 1st-mvmt. cadenza, he barely recovered after a page turn, and ended up improvising for a measure or two. The last movement was taken so unbelievably fast, that I suspect he was trying to get the piece done with ASAP. I couldn’t hear most of what was going on, it was so inarticulate. Still, anyone deserves credit for performing this concerto, which I am sorry to see is not appreciated as it should be even by modern audiences.

    Comment by Isaac — October 30, 2010 at 11:19 pm

  2. And I need to add that WCRB have fixed some kind of technical problems they apparently had and the Saturday concert was broadcasted with sound quality that we did not see in Boston for a while: the BSO does not play in 15dB dymick window anymore. The Chicago folks with your legendary WFMT sound – you can bite your fingers now.

    Comment by Romy The Cat — November 1, 2010 at 8:12 am

  3. I’m sure Toby Oft appreciates the credit, but the opening trombone solo in “Mandarin” was, in fact, played by BSO bass trombonist, Douglas Yeo. Toby Oft and second trombonist Stephen Lange were responsible for the stunning beginning of the “chase scene.”

    Comment by Jules — November 3, 2010 at 9:06 am

  4. Oh for the good old days when a worthwhile piece could be repeated the following week! I got a ticket for the Tuesday concert so I could hear the Doctor Atomic Symphony, and I wouldn’t mind hearing it again real soon. Perhaps somebody can persuade Maestro Levine to put it in place of the Prelude and Liebestod with which he threatens to conclude the concerts of November 26, 27, and 30. Or if putting it on the program with Harbison is too much new music for one concert, how about getting Sir Mark Elder to toss the unnecessary Till Eulenspiegel (Jan. 13-18) and bring in Doctor Atomic. Either way, it would be a great “surprise symphony,” and it would be good to leave Symphony Hall with our memory of it undimmed by something else.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — November 3, 2010 at 9:44 am

  5. Im glad to hear that WCRB has improved the sound. I listened to the first two weeks of Mahler and was distressed by the wretched sound compared to what we used to hear from Symphony Hall. I go to some Friday afternoons and often want to listen on Saturday.

    Comment by Roy Hammer — November 10, 2010 at 6:01 pm

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