in: Reviews

November 13, 2010

Speed, Sameness Prevail with Zacharias

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Conductor and Pianist Christian Zacharias leads the BSO (Stu Rosner photo)

Christian Zacharias, eminent conductor and pianist, playing and conducting Mozart concertos and Haydn symphonies, made his debut with the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Symphony Hall on Veteran’s Day, Thursday November 11. One can celebrate in diverse ways these days. But if you were looking for a celebration of humanity, of deeds, of loss and triumph that invoke deep emotion which words cannot always convey but music can, this was missing. Instead, speed prevailed turning much of the music away from expression and into rapid-fire sameness.

How fast is too fast? What I thought I heard in an ascending chromatic scale taken by Zacharias’s right hand speeding over the keys, were actually shifts in hand position — incredibly small technical glitches, if you will. Although barely perceptible, his technique broke a long passage into small groups. My sense was that these were not intended as nuances. Rather, I heard virtuosic recklessness, or abandon.

The purpose in my singling out this fleeting instance in the second movement of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 16 in D, K. 451 is an attempt to illustrate in a nutshell what this pianist-conductor seated at a coverless concert grand, his back to the audience, engaged in throughout the evening. Everything conducted and played was fast and faster still. Even slow movements felt fast. Zacharias’s interpretation, generated from a scholarly, knowledgeable perspective, surprised by its near total dependence on robust muscling of lyric phrases and ever quick, snapped-to cadences. Momentum took its toll. Fast moving scales and arpeggios could only get louder, rarely softer, or some other kind of dynamic to provide contrast in the delivery, never mind expression.

On the upside, the opening tune of the third movement from Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 15 in B-flat, K. 450 fell into an irresistible gait with piano and orchestra in cheerful lock-step. However, on the returns of this well-known rondo tune, its original luster persistently dissipated, never recouping that first brilliant announcement. After the piano cadenza, Zacharias momentarily slowed the gait in a tantalizing way, then made a dash for the final closing chords by way of unexpected couplings of dynamics with tempo and splays of orchestral colors with the neatest punctuations. An entirely imaginative play. After that, though, there were long stretches before something would like this would reoccur. In the slow movement of this concerto, a series of penetrating chords (known as “diminished” not because they are lower in status but because of their potential for creating musical tension) awakened the ear to wonderment, sounds to be savored beyond the evening.

The Finale: Vivace from Haydn’s Symphony No. 95 in C minor hurried, this time to positive effect, hurtling the movement into a space charged with anticipation and resolve, meting out Haydn’s inventiveness. Character and plot in these dramatic musical compositions, concerto and symphony, developed by two of Classical era’s greatest exponents found stand-ins — velocity and velocity. What I heard from Christian Zacharias reminds me of the computer graphics that fly by one after another before our eyes on today’s silver screen, television, and the Internet. How fast is too fast? Answer: speed gone viral.

Mozart composed both of the concertos performed on this program in one week during March of 1784, when he was twenty-eight years old. Haydn wrote and wrote, as well, bringing his output of symphonies alone to over 100. Haydn’s Symphony No. 80 in D minor, under Zacharias, missed making fun and delivering humanity. The first movement of Haydn’s Symphony No. 95 was a bit ragged in spots.

At first, watching Zacharias conduct and play the piano, his hands coming out of the air for orchestral cues then landing with amazing precision on the keyboard for soloing, was exciting and energizing. Sadly, though, I’d have to say a little bit went a long way.

There is a repeat on Saturday evening at 8:00 with the same program.

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. www.notescape.net

3 Comments

  1. Radio listeners to Saturday night’s BSO broadcast were treated to a variety of
    electronic (TIVO?) effects, in which passages were unaccountably repeated or deleted:

    At 6:02 of Haydn 80 the final measures of Movement 1 were reprised for about 30 seconds,
    eclipsing the opening measures of Movement 2; at 9:38 the music jumps back to 7:34.
    There was another kickback at 9:53, and an unscripted repeat from 12:48 to 14:08.
    At that point I put on a CD.

    BSO listeners now await further adventures in What Can Radio Bungle.

    Comment by Martin Cohn — November 14, 2010 at 10:49 am

  2. It seemed to me on Thursday that Maestro Zacharias slowed the tempo after the cadenzas in the final movements of both concertos, then accelerating to the conclusion.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — November 14, 2010 at 4:29 pm

  3. Sources tell us that engineers at Symphony Hall are unable to receive all-classical WCRB for monitoring purposes. That’s why glitches are often un-noticed.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — November 14, 2010 at 10:38 pm

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