Thursday’s Boston Symphony Orchestra concert, under the able direction of Ludovic Morlot, featured exactly the style of programming I most admire: a smart blend of classic and modern and avoidance of tired warhorses. The closest to a warhorse on this program was Berlioz’s Roman Carnival Overture, a favorite of the Charles Munch years, that is short, witty, and brilliant — a knockout piece perfectly suited for a concert opener. It has Italianate splendor as well as French clarity and a few comic moments, including a chromatic laugh near the end when the meter changes from fast 6/8 to lumbering 2/4 without change in tempo. (One minor carping point: the tambourine, which was just right in the introduction, was too loud at the end.)
Ludovic Morlot has my endorsement all the way. He is an energetic conductor who pays scrupulous attention to the score and projects all the energy needed without showing off — a marked contrast to the antic, overwrought cavorting of last week’s visitor, Myung-Whan Chung. Morlot showed a spacious, expressive beat in the Berlioz that projected pulse and energy rather than metric location, and the orchestra obvious liked it; later in the program, in the Carter Flute Concerto especially, his beat was steady, precise, and exactly placed, which was certainly needed in the difficult rhythms that dominated this brittle piece.
Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 25 in C Major, KV 503, the largest-proportioned of his late concerti, dates from December 1786, at the same time as the “Prague” Symphony in D major, KV 504. This concerto has the same proportions as the more famous 21st concerto in the same key, KV 467 (the so-called “Elvira Madigan” concerto), but it also has more lyricism and less drama. The lyricism is also wrought in the harmony, which is notable for its easy alternation between major and minor modes in the first and third movements. It was a delight to see and hear Richard Goode so much enjoying his own effortless performance. There are several outstanding Mozart pianists today — Barenboim, Levin, Uchida, Perahia are names that spring instantly to mind — but none better than this laid-back master whose tone and shape reveal him as a spiritual descendant of Schnabel. I liked his first-movement cadenza, and I liked his second-movement melodic ornamentations. The orchestra, with slightly reduced strings, provided all the right support, especially when one is aware that the horns, trumpets, and timpani, strong and assertive in KV 467, are restrained in this work, a reassuring, authoritative presence.
I didn’t hear the Carter Flute Concerto at its Boston premiere last year. This new performance is a tribute to one of America’s greatest masters less than a month before his 103rd birthday. Flute concerti are rare enough in any era, and the past century has produced few that are memorable, but this one is surely a significant addition to the repertory. In some thirteen continuous minutes, it has the earmarks of three movements in one. The “first movement” features sharply accented, fragmented gestures punctuated with plenty of percussion (woodblocks, xylophone) that underline the solo flute’s efforts to make itself heard — a genuine struggle that alternates with complex but clear harmonies in the divided strings. The soloist here often engages in a clever dialogue with the orchestral flute in weaving melodic lines — Pan and Echo together. The “slow movement” featured long, expressive notes in the flute supported by divided strings and punctuated by plucked basses and occasional vibraphone — the breathing space was needed, but the audience seemed not to like it, because there was too much coughing. The “finale” is very short and crisp, with combative outbursts in the brass that might have come from Act II scene 2 in Berg’s Wozzeck (a work that Carter admires), but the flute emerged triumphant. Elizabeth Rowe played the solo fearlessly and with expressive warmth. Morlot conducted with perfect precision, and I could see his 4/4 beat at every instant even when he had to use his left hand to indicate an offbeat cue. They should record this interesting and lively work.
Bartók’s The Miraculous Mandarin is called a pantomime and is based on a seduction scenario as gaudy and wild as any from the early twentieth century, as morally dubious as Oscar Wilde’s Salome; and although it is usually referred to as a ballet, it has none of the set pieces or ensembles that one finds in the Diaghilev repertory. For all that, just as The Wooden Prince, heard earlier this fall, can be thought of as Bartók’s “Firebird,” The Miraculous Mandarin is his “Rite of Spring” and shows an obviously explosive kinship with Stravinsky’s work. The Suite amounts to about two-thirds of the original pantomime score. No other work by Bartók is as aggressive and strident, and it is remarkable that his imagination and skill were able to achieve such a fine massiveness of sound with an orchestral wind section only half the size of Stravinsky’s blockbuster orchestra. This massiveness is evident from the start, where the strings play furiously and are dominant in the first pages, until the full winds are able to shout out the upper textures. (I missed the sound of the organ pedal in reinforcement of the bass line, as the score directs, and perhaps it was omitted.) The “decoy games” specified in the score are outlined by spectacular solos for clarinets, and these players got well-deserved bows. So did the members of the brass section, who projected all the volume and intensity required; it was reassuring to hear them handle these roles so well when last week, in the Tchaikovsky Sixth, they were forced to play far too loud for the needs of the music. Hats off to Ludovic Morlot for his understanding of just what this brilliant score needed for maximum forcefulness and effectiveness.
Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert in Alban Berg, also Ravel and Debussy. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (PhD, 1967), he has published extensively on these composers and many music subjects, most notably, harmony. His most recent book is Schubert’s Great C Major: Biography of a Symphony. His website is here.