Guest conductor Christoph Eschenbach and our Boston Symphony Orchestra put on an unbelievable display for its UnderScore Friday last night. At seven o’clock we were underway with BSO harpist Jessica Zhou engaging in a little harp talk. French music was on the menu with Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique in a performance that reached hitherto unreachable heights. The Overture to his opera Benvenuto Cellini served as one very mouthwatering appetizer. French pianist Cédric Tiberghien made his BSO debut in a highly seasoned Ravel Piano Concerto in G that was maybe a bit over-seasoned.
Zhou, in her short and sweet introduction, said she took up harp because of her mother, who played one for China’s National Symphony. We learned that the harp part of the second movement of Berlioz’s Symphonie is always required at an audition; and yes, Zhou played it when she auditioned for principal harp of the BSO three years ago. One of the toughest parts, she told us, was having to wait through the 17-minute-long first movement, hoping all the while that, for her opening notes of the second movement, her hands would be warm enough to move and her harp still in tune. Unassuming, even a tad shy, Zhou is very likable and very much appreciated in her new role.
At my first glimpse of German conductor Christoph Eschenbach, he reminded me of those sudden, darting motions of animated characters in video games. By concert’s end, he had turned hero, along with co-heroes Berlioz and the BSO. There could not have been a single person in the hall that did not thrill to every — I mean every — last note. Will we ever again experience what we experienced with this life of an artist high on love and opium, doomed to Romanticism’s darkest and scariest, who gave us one solid hour of intense dreaming, a novel communicated through music? Highest of highest drama, this performance of Berlioz’s extraordinary program symphony, from passionate sweeps to tiniest of peeps, breath-holding nuances, heart pumping climaxes, eye-dazzling gestures, ear-alluring sounds, was assuredly all there. How did conductor and orchestra fare together in their 19th-century elocution? Fantastique!
Colors blazed anew in Ravel’s not-at-all Impressionist piano concerto. Cédric Tiberghien and Christoph Eschenbach have performed together before, and it showed: in the Allegramente, with its American blues and Spanish tints shifting in muscular syncopations, in the minute rubatos, in the flawless balances between piano flourishes, in the wild dabs of solo wind, brass and percussion, and in the playing of the full orchestra. Tiberghien revealed a singular, new voice which is emerging from the sonic canvas of explosive playing we are hearing from today’s young artists.
Ravel’s Adagio assai is one of the most difficult piano concerto movements to pull off because of its abnormally long opening piano solo. Yet it is those very stretches that tempt too many pianists into overdoing it by relying on too much detail. It can hide Ravel’s formidable Baroque manifestations, among them the “Doctrine of Affections” — one movement, one mood. In the final Presto movement, BSO’s brilliant dappling overshadowed Tiberghien; and strikingly, at other times, the young phenomenon had the piano sounding very much like a harp.
Looking for someone to replace James Levine, it turns out, has been a great ride for BSO concertgoers so far this symphony season. Being introduced to old- and newcomers to Boston’s podium has provided an opportunity rarely afforded in the past. Could this ever become the future practice, possibly?
A complimentary reception for UnderScore Friday subscribers followed the concert. What’s going on? Is the east coast taking on the west coast, with its Keeping Score (San Francisco Orchestra)?