in: Reviews

January 20, 2012

Creative Upheaval at BSO


The readers of the Musical Intelligencer will be relieved to know that there was no riot at the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s most recent concert, held on January 19 at Symphony Hall. Despite this reprieve from civic disorder, the concert did include upheaval in the usual order of things: the first half of the program was given without a conductor, and the second half featured one of the most raucous pieces in the classical canon, Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. Italian maestro Riccardo Chailly, originally scheduled to conduct works by Debussy and Ravel as well as the Stravinsky, was unable to fulfill his commitment due to health concerns. In response, the members of the orchestra took it upon themselves to program works for the first half of the concert that could be performed without a conductor; Giancarlo Guerrero, director of the Nashville Symphony and guest conductor at Tanglewood in 2010, stepped in on short notice to conduct the Stravinsky.

The first half of the program was divided between works featuring the brass and percussion, the winds and the horns, and the strings. Each of these sections offered performances that exhibited the common tendencies of each instrumental family. The brass and percussion, as they are often called upon to do, offered the “curtain raiser” in Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man. The group created a strong, controlled presentation, though the long, arching lines of the middle section often lacked a unified dynamic shape. This issue was considerably improved, however, in their second selection, Henri Tomasi’s “Good Friday Procession” from his Liturgical Fanfares. Next the winds and horns presented Richard Strauss’s Serenade in E-flat Major for 13 Wind Instruments, Op. 7. Characteristic of this instrumental group, elegance and dexterity pervaded the texture, including a delightful rapport between individual voices. The lack of a conductor created some issues, however, including a musical climax in which each section seemed to be competing for dominance, as well as insufficient contrasts of musical character between the larger sections of the work. Finally, the strings took the stage to perform Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings. Of the three groups, the strings displayed the strongest ensemble as well as unification of musical concept, perhaps owing to the leadership inherent in the office of the concertmaster/mistress, who serves as the “sub-director” for the section. The opening movement was powerful (perhaps even as “brassy” as the Copland), the central waltz and elegy were graceful, and the finale stirring. The length of this selection was an issue, especially in view of its position at the end of the first half of a concert, leading to a great deal of fidgeting among audience members by the end of the third movement.

Following the intermission, the full ensemble took the stage for The Rite. Guererro’s leadership was truly impressive, from his complete memorization of one of the most challenging scores in the repertoire, to his use of gesture indicative of the character of the music itself (as opposed to the all-too-common motions that accomplish little more than keeping time). His interpretation of the programmatic aspect of this work was well served by the continual buildup of “musical savagery” as the story moves toward the concluding “Sacrificial Dance.” This slow build did have one drawback, however, namely that the work opened with sounds that were simply too clean for Stravinsky’s primeval vision. The opening bassoon solo, though executed with precision, was given in a timbre that is far too “symphonic” to represent the guttural cry that Stravinsky once transposed up a fourth, just so that bassoonists wouldn’t be able play it beautifully. In the same way, the incessant beating of the emblematic “axis chord” (an E-flat seventh chord over an E Major chord) of the “Dance of the Adolescents” was insufficiently forceful to represent this ritual “pounding of the earth.” I am not necessarily suggesting that these earlier sections should have matched later portions of the work in dynamic or aggression, a choice that the programmatic narrative does not always support; a clear remove from the symphonic style through an “uglier” sound, however, might have transported the listeners more immediately into Stravinsky’s dreadful vision. This became less of an issue as the piece continued, and the atmosphere of musical dis-ease was soon in full effect. The work built to a thrilling close, eliciting thunderous applause and a standing ovation from those in attendance.

Joel Schwindt is a PhD candidate in Musicology at Brandeis University. In addition to performances as a vocalist and conductor, his writings have been published by the Baerenreiter-Verlag publishing house and the Choral Journal.


  1. I went to the Friday afternoon concert.  I didn’t think the Tchaikovsky was long myself, but it was apparent that many people in the audience did.  There was very substantial applause after the first movement, apparently because people thought the piece had come to its conclusion.  And then, although it became clear that they had been mistaken, there was also a lot of applause after the second movement.  But then after the third movement only three or four people applauded briefly.  During the third and fourth movements there was also some coughing that sounded more like the bored sort of coughing, not the terribly sick sort of coughing.

    Comment by John — January 20, 2012 at 9:55 pm

  2. Oh, come now. Lovey and I were just saying as we dined our usual at 75 Chestnut “Get out there and enjoy life and cough, if you must.” Indeed, as Shakespeare once said “The worst is not so long as we can say, ‘This is the worst.’ Life is too short to worry about coughers and premature applauders.”

    Comment by Thurston Howell III — January 22, 2012 at 11:41 am

  3. I was at the Thursday concert- loved the Tchaikovsky, it was probably the most engaged I’ve ever seen the strings at the BSO.  Guerrero’s conducting on the Rite was really something else, tremendously entertaining and fun to watch.  Would that conductors always conducted with such daemonic glee!  Would love to know what the orchestra’s experience was like working with him.
    Was wondering if anybody else found the musicians speaking to the audience between numbers in the first half irritating.  I’m certainly not  opposed to speaking at concerts or recitals, but I don’t generally like it at the BSO and I ESPECIALLY don’t like it if it’s really didactic and/or dumbed down (You may have noticed something different…. the strings are standing up!!!!)  Is this part of a trend at the BSO?  Did anybody else have any reactions to this?  Did this happen at all the concerts or was it just the matinee?

    Comment by Joe Turbessi — January 23, 2012 at 9:33 pm

  4. Correction- I was at the Friday matinee, not the Thursday night concert.

    Comment by Joe Turbessi — January 23, 2012 at 9:33 pm

  5. The “You may have noticed”s were part of the show on Thursday, when I was there, and Saturday, when I was listening on the radio, as well. I thought it was kind of silly to put it that way: too cute by half.

    But then I suppose most of the time they speak to audiences it’s schoolchildren, so it’s the style they’ve grown accustomed to. 

    Comment by Joe Whipple — January 23, 2012 at 10:23 pm

  6. I was at the ill-fated Tuesday performance, and while I greatly enjoyed (as James Sommerville put it) seeing faces that are usually hidden, I also fidgeted through most of the talking. However, it seemed to me that Ms. Lee didn’t intend to patronize, but rather suffered from the surprisingly common phenomenon of being a consummate instrumentalist who enters deer-in-the-headlight mode when asked to speak to the same audience to which she plays her violin.
    I too thought the strings presented brilliant ensemble work and sound in the Tchaikovsky. If only I could have heard beyond the first two movements of Rite of Spring…

    Comment by Zoe Kemmerling — January 25, 2012 at 2:33 pm

  7. What a shame about last night! After a slightly unfocused first page, the RoS turned absolutely phenomenal on Saturday night. The broadcast is still available for a listen:

    Comment by nimitta — January 25, 2012 at 8:53 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Sorry, this comment forum is now closed.