IN: Reviews

French Flavors from Eschenbach, Tiberghien, BSO


Christoph Eschenbach and Cédric Tiberghien (Stu Rosner photo)

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)?

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.


9 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. David Patterson wrote.. 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 ..

    This reception has ALWAYS followed each concert in the Underscore Friday series for the past 2 or 3 years which is one of the reasons
    for the 7pm starting time.

    Comment by Ed Burke — March 3, 2012 at 3:12 pm

  2. Seems like Prof. Patterson was simply implying that receptions and talks during concerts are imitative of California. Why the bold face?

    Comment by de novo — March 3, 2012 at 4:07 pm

  3. Phenomenal concerts!

    Comment by Sean K — March 3, 2012 at 10:42 pm

  4. I was trying listening this morning the Saturday evening concert. It features two major works that I do not particularly appreciate. I still went over myself and heard theRavel concerto.  Even I do not like this musk but I have to admit that it was very-very-very good, atypically enthusiastic and surprisingly expressive play from BSO. Mr. Tiberghien was also excellent. For somebody who loves this music it has to be a REAL treat. I guess I need to look into some Tiberghien and Eschenbach discography and to see what else they have out there….

    Comment by Romy The Cat — March 4, 2012 at 12:09 pm

  5. The BSO’s Saturday’s concert , despite its broadcast’s compromised sound, revealed an extraordinary evening of music-making, and made me regret that I was not present in Symphony Hall to hear it in person.  Who knew that Eschenbach was an accomplished and creatively-minded Berliozian?  The difficult-to-bring-off Benvenuto Cellini overture was lively and exuberantly played though there was an errant wind entry near its finish.   Eschenbach’s finely nuanced and rubato-redolent Fantastique was pure unadulterated tonic to the ossified and rote-like Ozawa performances heard as his BSO career was winding down, and after (in 2008).  This was an amazing performance, played to the hilt by all the members of the Orchestra, all obviously on-board with the conductor’s well-thought-through interpretation.  The same attention to detail and thoughtful playing was brought to the Ravel Concerto, where things long-buried in lesser performances were brought out for contemplative consideration.  Kudos to Eschenbach and the BSO for bringing this wonderful music new and impressive “meaning” and not merely accompanying.  Finally, Tiberghien played flawlessly, tastefully,  and most importantly, idiomatically. Not sure if he played an encore in the concert Prof. Patterson heard, but on Saturday he played a superb solo Ravel encore:  Oiseaux Tristes from Miroirs, further validating his credentials as a truly gifted pianist.  More, please, of this kind of music-making! 

    Comment by John W. Ehrlich — March 4, 2012 at 12:33 pm

  6. ‘It features two major works that I do not particularly appreciate’

    Well, I only have one, the second half piece. For the one that I do like. I have different opinions. The first movement is way too modern, much more than it should be. Tiberghien put a lot of sand into the rapid flow of music, making it unsmooth. The orchestra never find the right color of the concerto. How ugly it was! The last movement could have been more dynamic and expressive.

    Comment by Thorsten Zhu — March 5, 2012 at 11:14 am

  7. There was no encore on Friday evening.

    The audience might have got it right. only one additional round of applause for the pianist, but three for the Berlioz symphony.

    BTW, Not to irritate John, I don’t have the taste for that kind French music.

    Comment by Thorsten Zhu — March 5, 2012 at 11:18 am

  8. Well, mileage seems to vary on this program.  I attended Saturday evening, and while there were moments that had some wonderful BSO sound, and others where the orchestra played very well indeed, there were also quite a lot of places where the orchestra wasn’t at all sure what Eschenbach had in mind.  And that’s even before negotiating some of the arbitrary tempo changes.  This sort of thing can be thrilling in Mahler (if you don’t especially care what the score says) and tolerated in Brahms, but it puts a real monkey wrench into Berlioz and Ravel.
    At the end of the evening, the maestro actually milked the applause, waving his hand for more noise while some of the section players looked very confused about why everyone seemed to like it so much.

    Comment by Stephen Symchych — March 6, 2012 at 10:51 pm

  9. there were also quite a lot of places where the orchestra wasn’t at all sure what Eschenbach had in mind.

    My impression was that there were moments when his hands were a little bit behind the music. It is like someone ‘conducting a CD’ the first time listening to it, while the conductor should be like ‘conducting a CD’ after listening to it for 10 times. I saw the expression of his hands, but it sometimes did not precede/lead the music.

    Comment by Thorsten Zhu — March 7, 2012 at 11:51 am

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