IN: Reviews

Electric Extravaganza at Symphony Hall


No Mozart sized orchestra for the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s second week of the new season, its 131st.  From BSO’s own briefing, “This week, BSO Assistant Conductor Sean Newhouse leads an all-20th-century program bursting with orchestra brilliance and featuring French pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet as soloist in Sergei Prokofiev’s popular piano concerto, his Third.”

Orchestral brilliance did indeed mark the Thursday evening concert on October 6th with three pieces upsizing post-classical proportions, one from 1902, another from 1921 and the latest from 1945. It was the 1921 Prokofiev Piano Concerto No. 3 that came across as the most up-to-date. The Russian composer’s populated score recognizes a shift from landscapes and seascapes to expressiveness more akin to, say, a Fritz Lang Metropolis. The Frenchman, Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, injected a pristine Ravel-like splendorous plane over the concerto. Seeming to adopt metrical structures in Boulezian arresting meticulousness at breakneck speed, Bavouzet’s Prokofiev was nothing short of an electric extravaganza. Spontaneous Hurrahs! counterpointing the applause in Symphony Hall provided more than ample proof.

Describing a single detail emblematic of his “modernized” delivery of the concerto may shed some light. Just before the close of the second movement, Theme (Andantino) and Variations, comes a dissonant harmony that unravels smoothly, logically to its consonant destination. Rather than concentrating on unraveling the progression, Bavouze instead seized upon the dissonance, making it the very point, and causing in that very instant an unexpected reaction—another one of many volts that electrified. The charged Boston Symphony Orchestra itself was no less his equal, perfectly illuminating the popular piano concerto in brightness and braininess.

The ever-so-familiar 1902 Symphony No. 2 in D, Opus 43 of Jan Sibelius at once beholds dramatically a scenic countryside and outspokenly identifies Finland’s national pride.  The newly appointed Assistant Conductor, Sean Newhouse, along with the BSO orchestra of Romantic era size, showed an unquestionable presence throughout the expansive symphonic statement from an obviously enthused and motivated Finn. Unlike the Prokofiev on the program, the Sibelius could only yield somewhat to updating, something which Newhouse and the entire orchestral cast naturally wrestled from the century-old work and that to magnificent, cinemascope result: the thrill of brilliant brass, the nobility of rich strings, the allure of vibrant winds, and spectacle of dramatic percussion.

These two performances on the same program created an unusual pair of listening situations. In the Prokofiev of the ’20s, Bavouzet and Newhouse thrust listeners forward in time, with no time to settle in. Quite the contrast, the Sibelius of the turn-of-the-century prolonged time, would give listeners the chance to sit back, observe, and absorb.

Benjamin Britten’s Four Sea Interludes, from Peter Grimes (1945), which opened the all-20th-century concert and was also marked by BSO brilliance, though, neither thrust nor prolonged. The Englishman’s stationary tones, some of them pedal points, droned this way and that. Certainly unusually clever variants they were but had, too often, a halting, tentative effect on the way Britten’s highly crafted instrumental events from his popular opera unfolded over time. The starkly textured, Dawn, the first of the set of sea pieces, did draw me in.  The unison strings high up on the fingerboards shrieked and alternated with brass harmonies that developed into longer and longer phrases that finally reached climax. The densely orchestrated Storm (Presto con fuoco) interfered with any projection of dynamic time.

Stationary, thrust, prolonged time in brilliant color with three oldies but goodies—this was a BSO spin that succeeded.

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.

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  1. I think the Prokofiev Piano Concerto was an fascinating event. I need to preface saying that I do not like Prokofiev’s piano concertos, too soviet-corny to my feline taste but it is not the point. In my estimation it is not frequent that I hear in Symphony Hall a concert, particularly as rhythmic as Prokofiev Third, when orchestra would be as perfectly time-integrated with piano as it was in this particular case.  Jean-EfflamBavouzet and Sean Newhouse with his BSO deserve very high mark from this perspective.
    To hear piano concertos in Symphony Hall is generally a pain. I am not the one who screams glory to Symphony Hall accustoms and the piano concertos are particular troublesome. The only proper sonic AND timing balance of piano with orchestra I heard in the Hall was when the Hall was filed less than a half. If the Symphony Hall filed up (as it usually is) then in my estimation no matter where you sit and no matter what musicians do it does not sound ether interesting or time-balanced.  There us one spot on the fist left balcony where balance is fine if orchestral does not go too loud. At the bottom, on the floor, on the left side there is a phenomenal spot to hear piano concerts but from there trumpets are good 20-30 millisecond behind piano and they never time-align.
    The Piano Concerto I was listening over the FM live with standard WCRB minimum microphone arrangement, hanging just  above conductor row and giving the reference arriving time to the position where  Mr. Newhouse was.  So, the way how BSO and the lead pianist opened up the ProkofievConcerto was absolutely exemplary in terms of how timing-integration shall be. It is not too frequent fest and this alone does not make the performance “interesting” but I think it needed to be told that it was a perfect execution of orchestra/piano timing.

    Comment by Romy The Cat — October 9, 2011 at 8:38 pm

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