in: Reviews

April 9, 2011

Debus’s Haydn Enlivens BSO Concert

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Perhaps a worthy new occupation for old Kremlinologists might be parsing the texts of official communications from institutions like the Boston Symphony Orchestra. For the series of programs from April 7 through 12 (we attended the one on April 8) the program book announced that Sir Colin Davis had been unable to conduct his two sets of programs in April for “health-related” reasons. We wonder how this might differ from actual health reasons (comments welcome), but it opened an opportunity to hear the BSO conducted by the young German, Johannes Debus, who is currently artistic director of the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto. Debus made his Symphony Hall, um, debut (he conducted at Tanglewood this past summer) leading the program Sir Colin had chosen, the Mozart Symphony No. 32 in G, K. 318 and the Clarinet Concerto in A, K. 622, with the orchestra’s principal clarinetist William Hudgins as soloist, and the Haydn Symphony No. 97 in C, Hob. I/97.

The program was a mildly daring one by BSO standards, restricted as it was to eighteenth-century works (and don’t think we didn’t hear complaints about that from some audience members). It was also a relatively high-stakes outing for Debus: although in his thirteen-year career he has conducted in some major opera houses, mostly in Europe — at least according to the biographies we were able to scrounge up online in addition to the one in the program book, the BSO is the biggest-name symphony orchestra he has yet tackled, and in one of his few non-operatic ventures (his Tanglewood gig was a concert performance of The Abduction from the Seraglio). With the BSO in its currently leaderless — and possibly rudderless — state, audience buzz, whether informed or not, ran in the channels of “is this a job interview?”

The Mozart K. 318 is listed as a symphony, but what it really seems to be, and may have been intended to be, is an opera overture. It is in a single movement broken into fast-slow-fast sections, where the latter is a modified recapitulation of the former, with the slow section a lyric interruption. Steven Ledbetter’s customarily enlightening program note pointed to André Grétry as precedent for this structure, but we have also heard some Haydn opera overtures in this configuration. Mozart apparently wrote it in 1771 but expanded the orchestration in 1785. Its principal theme bears some resemblance to a tune from The Marriage of Figaro, dating from 1786. While certainly not among Mozart’s deepest works, it is not without interest and is an exemplary curtain-raiser that is not often performed; Sir Colin’s programming judgment was astute.

Debus has a reputation as a balletically inclined leader, but while occasionally bouncing along with Mozart’s infectious rhythms he, and consequently the orchestra, seemed oddly restrained. The dynamics ranged from medium to loud; it occurred to us that one benefit of playing this kind of music with a largish ensemble on modern instruments is that one can access a wider dynamic range, a benefit of which Debus did not avail himself in this piece.

Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto, one of his last compositions, remains the leading and most popular work in this genre, and along with Haydn’s trumpet concerto is surely the greatest Classical-era concerto for a wind instrument. Tradition at the BSO seems to be that the orchestra’s principal player gets to do it; the program book could identify only one occasion in which that was not the case — Benny Goodman was the soloist on that occasion — and Mr. Hudgins therefore took his stand (literally so: he played from the score) in that illustrious procession. In the first movement Debus conducted with admirable clarity and emphasis on contrapuntal activity, but we again sensed a reticence when it came to dynamics, although this was not a big issue for Hudgins, whose beautiful round tone was well mated to subtle dynamic refinement; his staccatos were crisp without harshness, and blended perfectly into legatos. In the slow movement, Hudgins appropriately emphasized the pathos in Mozart’s lyricism and was smooth as silk: not a hint of breath or any break in purity, regardless of register. This suavity may have been a bit misplaced in the finale which did not receive as rollicking a rendition as we might have liked. Overall, we didn’t get any interpretive revelations here, just a solid and straightforward presentation of impeccable technical prowess — a textbook example, you might say, with all the pluses and minuses that entails.

The tone of things changed remarkably after intermission. It was apparent that Debus had real affection for Haydn 97, which, of all the Salomon symphonies is among the less performed, for no good reason we can see. It’s a dilly in Haydn’s brightest, most festive, wittiest and paradoxically most learnèd manner. Debus was caught up in it all —brilliant colors, snappy tempi, all the dynamic contrasts that were missing from his Mozart. A few details we particularly appreciated were the marvelous transition from the slow introduction to the first movement allegro; the quacking wind interjections in the theme, and the dynamic contrasts in the minore variation in the slow movement, whose sul ponticello passages, superbly executed by the BSO strings, must have knocked their socks off in 1792, the liveliness and panache of the minuet (for Haydn an unusually through-composed one), and the delicious chromatic slides in the finale. This performance alone would have been worth the price of admission.

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.

4 Comments

  1. I heard the Thursday performance, and my reaction to the Mozart was similar to Mr. Koven’s, although less specific: nothing wrong, but nothing spectacular, either. To me, the Haydn symphony, was similarly good but not thrilling. I would have loved to have been moved to jump up and yell, “Bravo,” but none of the performances made me feel like doing so. I just applauded enthusiastically in my seat, as did the rest of the audience.

    As a side note, the hall was not sold out: plenty of empty seats along the sides of the balconies. Would Sir Colin’s presence have given us a full house?

    Comment by Joe Whipple — April 9, 2011 at 6:45 pm

  2. I enjoyed this concert more than the reviewer and the first commentor.

    I wrote in a previous post that any applicant for music director should be asked to conduct a Haydn symphony. Debus was quite fine, though not as joyous as Colin Davis, as ebullient as Bernstein, or as refined and glorious as Szell.

    The performance of the Clarinet Concerto was superb. I heard Harold Wright perform it with Davis in the 70s; unfortunately Wright embolmed it, emphasizing mellowness over joy. But a half century ago I heard the legendary Robert Marcellus perform it in Severance Hall with Szell and the Clevelanders; their recording remains the benchmark for this work. The performance was sublime, praise I rarely offer. Saturday night’s performance was almost on that level.

    Comment by Allan Kohrman — April 10, 2011 at 5:26 pm

  3. We attended Friday afternoon, and heard radio on Saturday night.
    As reported, the concerto was well done both times. The Haydn was
    less lilting than Davis’s recording, and less bumptious than Jochum’s.
    Demus ruled himself out of our consideration by ending the menuetto
    rit. and dim. — neither indicated in the score. He also
    slighted some of Haydn’s characteristic fun, such as the timpani
    barrages in the menuetto and the cello’s “PLUNK” in the last movement.

    As a social note: The Saturday night audience applauded after
    every movement of the Mozart and after every movement of the Haydn.
    On Friday, the first movement of the concerto got a smattering.

    Comment by Martin Cohn — April 12, 2011 at 9:19 am

  4. “Demus ruled himself out of our consideration…” Why does anyone imagine he is or was a serious candidate? People need to get real. Some guest conductors are just that. Debus is a candidate for a return engagement. He gets points for being gracious enough to conduct the program Colin Davis planned.

    But who in management OK’d this program that us out the door at 9:40?

    NB: The BSO announced its 2010-2011 season a year ago today.

    Comment by Bill — April 12, 2011 at 2:35 pm

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