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Uncorked Vintage Oeuvres from Denève, BSO


Conductor Stéphane Denève made his Boston Symphony Orchestra debut on Thursday, April 14, in an uncorked display of French esprit. Two vintage oeuvres, one of Roussel and another of Ravel nothing less than intoxicated Symphony Hall after intermission. American pianist Jonathan Biss returned for a second time in five years to perform Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto on the first half of the program. Reactions? Perhaps playwright Edward Albee may have put it best, “No two people see the same show.”

Whatever the concert follower’s taste, remarkable it is to learn that Albert Roussel created Symphony No. 3 in G minor, Opus 42 — considered by many to be among the best of his works — at the request of our own BSO for the celebration its fiftieth anniversary (that being the 1930-31 season under the direction of the incomparable Serge Koussevitzky). The Frenchman’s score savors a full orchestral plate. In point of fact, Denève only took his own serious bows as he called upon the various sections to stand with him after an outrageously thrilling performance. The orchestra’s handsome and instructive concert program informs us that Roussel’s work met with approval from the Boston audience at its premiere eighty years ago. My impression of Thursday night’s reception was that it did once again.

Roussel’s brass scoring for four trumpets, three trombones, and tuba gloriously marched in on the last movement, Allegro con spirito, doing so with glances at the grandly heroic in a kind of déjà vu of the fantastic March to the Guillotine by his compatriot Berlioz. Just before the final notes, the BSO brass bountifully blared out Roussel’s “crazy,” possibly tongue-in-cheek, harmony. That had more than a little to do with bringing big smiles, even gleeful exclamations from around the hall. I cannot resist adding my own: this performance was a blast!

And more. Malcolm Lowe’s violin inched its way up the fingerboard in the Adagio, ultimately reaching the highest and purist of sound in a single tone that was as serenely a moving moment as I have ever encountered. Roussel’s work also invited the BSO winds to exhibit adeptness in all kinds of nifty orchestral situations, and they did so thrillingly. Roussels’s liveliness, some of it coming at very, very high speeds, conjures Paris bustle back then in the earlier twentieth century and hints at Erik Satie’s eccentric take on a still earlier time of childlike naiveté.

The BSO percussion section drove the Roussel farther still into the composer’s distinctively cultivated physicality — no wonder the unrestrained reaction from the audience! This is a keeper. More well earned bows for Denève, all of the BSO, and the 1930 commission.

Maurice Ravel’s popular La Valse became another creature in Maestro Denève’s hands. Not at all picturesquely impressionistic, or vaporously and sensually suggestive, or bacchanalian orgiastic, it was another kind of spell that Denève cast over Ravel’s French-Viennese dance. Was it what former BSO annotator Steven Ledbetter offers in the program notes? “The piece grows in a long crescendo, interrupted and stated again, finally carried to an energetic and irresistible climax whose violence hints at far more than a social dance.”

Thinking of Albee once again, who knows? As the waltz continued, I became more interested in watching Denève’s seemingly double-jointed moves at the podium. He asked for an unmistakable edginess and the orchestra responded. Somehow, though, that did not come across as natural. A somewhat freakish spell, though, did. I admire his and the BSO’s invocation of yet another slant on the Ravel. My only reservation, really, is that this extremely dynamic interpretation competed with the Roussel. I had expected contrast.

I was disappointed with the performance of Beethoven’s eternal cadenza, his Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-Flat, Opus 73, “Emperor.” So it seemed to me as Jonathan Biss all too uncommonly smoothed out the concerto’s extensive scale work, polished off its many trills, and refined its frequent arpeggios, all this done with enviable velocity and prowess. Surprisingly there was not enough power from the piano. This was especially noticeable in the last movement, so wanting finally to burst out in triumphant unabated melody.


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.


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

  1. Mr. Patterson, thanks for putting into words much of what I felt but couldn’t have easily articulated. When I got home on Thursday evening I was really pleased to have heard the Roussel symphony. This review makes me wish there were a Tuesday performance so I could listen to it again with your descriptions giving points of reference.

    And “not enough power from the piano” perfectly captures the problem I had with Mr. Biss’s playing.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — April 16, 2011 at 10:15 am

  2. Thanks for the observations about the Roussell. I’ll be listening on 99.5 (I live north of Boston; WCRB comes in like a local. Wait a minute: it IS a local!

    Comment by Laurence Glavin — April 16, 2011 at 2:11 pm

  3. I went to the rehearsal. This was my own experience of the Roussel symphony, which was a revelation to me. Most of the audience at that morning thought similarly.

    Because I was sitting in the front row right, I had no difficulty in hearing Biss. It was a lot better than when I heard the similar concerto a few years.ago.

    Comment by Larry Phillips — April 16, 2011 at 4:33 pm

  4. I could not agree more with Prof. Patterson and I went Friday afternoon. Deneve has style and charisma! But this brings me to another subject: the succession to Levine. The BSO has squandered may opportunities in the past when it has come to selection of music directors: opportunities lost include Bernstein, Thomas, Davis (thought he may never been serious about a permanent position here), Rattle and according to some, Spano. Never mind the reasons. It seems to me that we have been fortunate the last weeks to hear from the likes of John Nelson, Johannes Debus and now Stephane Deneve. The orchestra seemed to have liked at least two of them, if we judge tapping of bows and modest applause from the stage. BSO plays best in the Franco-Russian tradition: Monteux, Koussevitsky, Munch and early Ozawa. It struggles with the Germanic, from Leinsdorf, Steinberg to the later, enervated Levine. Why don’t our esteemed Trustees allow some subscriber non-Trustee input. After all, we fill the halls and put up with substitutes, programme changes and extended courtships, even though we may know better. Hurrahs for looking at dynamic young conductors as successors to the establishment: NY Phil, LA Phil and Cleveland (though it is now almost 10 years for Welser-Most) seem to have it right!

    Comment by Robert Blacklow — April 16, 2011 at 6:07 pm

  5. I heartily second Robert Blacklow’s emotion. Listeners more qualified than I have been ruing for decades that the worst blunder the BSO ever made (apart from retaining Seiji Ozawa far too long for the good of either) was missing the chance to invite Jean Martinon (1910-1976) to succeed his beloved conducting mentor, Charles Munch, as music director when they might have been in a position to do so.

    Following Martinon’s dazzling series of guest appearances at Ravinia in July 1960, and in Orchestra Hall in March of ’62, the Chicago Symphony trustees, despite the CSO’ still deeply ingrained mitteleuropische tradition, offered Maritnon a five-year contract to succeed the ailing Fritz Reiner. Had Erich Leinsdorf had been offered the job instead, both men surely would have had smoother sailing in what turned out to be the most turbulent, often downright nasty, decade in their respective careers.

    On the other hand, if that scenario HAD been followed, I and many other CSO mavens, would have been denied five years of the most stimulating programming in the orchestra’s history, not to mention music-making that was, more often than not, on the highest level; and not just in French and 20th-century repertoire. Critic Bernard Jacobson proclaimed the Brahms First Martinon led in 1968 as the greatest performance he had heard of that work since Furtewängler.

    As Jean Martinon pointed out so often, Roussel was “my Maître” — not just in composition but in general aesthetics and the nurturing of the “live and let live” world view that would cause him so much grief in Chicago.

    Comment by Chicago Steve — April 17, 2011 at 12:36 pm

  6. I enjoyed this performance more than most. For Biss, modesty is a virtue; he plays in the style of Solomon and Curzon. The Emperor Concerto is a great piece of music that can be interpreted in a number of ways; a pianist need not storm the heavens, as do Rudolf Serkin and Leon Fleisher.
    The second half of the concert was just fine; old timers must have been reminded of the glory days (in French music) under Munch.

    Comment by Allan Kohrman — April 17, 2011 at 2:12 pm

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