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.