IN: Reviews

Kavakos Nails the Details at BSO


Leonidas Kavakos, violin and conducto (Stu-Rosner photo)

For the rest of this week, the Boston Symphony Orchestra presents an eclectic program with Leonidas Kavakos serving double duty as violin soloist and conductor. In the wake of the surprise departure of music director James Levine, a number of unexpected names have turned up among the conductors for this season. Kavakos has been known for decades as a musician’s violinist of wide-ranging curiosity and musicianship, but his turn at conducting was not merely a soloist’s ego trip, but also resulted in an appealing concert where the attention to detail was telling. He is not new to the field of conducting; he has wanted to conduct since childhood. His repertoire includes works as big as Brahms’s First Symphony (you can hear rehearsal excerpts and an interview about his conducting here) and his ambition is to conduct Bruckner.

The program last night, which repeats on Thursday evening, Friday afternoon, and Saturday evening, began with J. S. Bach’s Concerto in D, BWV 1052, a work typically thought of as the best known of his solo keyboard concertos. But, it’s now widely believed that all of the Bach keyboard concertos were arrangements of concertos for other instruments; some of the original concertos survive in their original format, but the violin concerto that served as a model for BWV 1052 is now lost. The BSO presented it in a reverse-engineered edition for violin, strings and continuo prepared by Wilfried Fischer and published in the New Bach Edition here.

It’s refreshing to hear the BSO play Bach; apart from the St. John Passion, I can find no Bach on any BSO program at Symphony Hall going back at least five or six years (Bach is occasionally programmed at Tanglewood). The orchestra was reduced — some 10 violins, four violas, two cellos, one double-bass, and harpsichord continuo by Mark Kroll. Kavakos led the ensemble as a soloist, with the entire score of the concerto laid out as a continuous single page across three music stands. His style and manner were self-effacing; he came on stage dressed in a black shirt and pants without jacket or tie and played along with the first violins in the orchestral tuttis, even turning his back to the audience to face the players in the opening of the slow movement. The playing was historically inspired, rather than historically informed: the strings played with little vibrato, and the kind of messa di voce swells and fades on held notes that one usually associates with period instrument bands, but the phrasing and musicianship are strongly influenced by later playing styles. For example, in the keyboard original, the soloist plays runs of similar figures in a sequence of keys that can sound a little square especially when each sequence is delivered the same way. Kavakos played the equivalent passages on solo violin with skillful rubato and deft double stopping, making them sound like gypsy improvisations and rendering it as a convincingly idiomatic violin concerto. I’d love to hear Kavakos record more arrangements of Bach keyboard concertos for solo violin, based on this performance.

The Lutosławski Muzyka żałobna (or Musique funèbre) is scored for string orchestra, with first and second violins, violas, cellos, and double-basses all divided to make 10 independent sections. The score stipulates that the violins sit at the conductor’s left, the violas right-center, the cellos far right, and the basses rear right. It becomes clear why this choice is made in the opening Prologue, a canon based on a chromatic theme that starts in the second cellos and moves in an arc from right to left, with each entry through the string choir up to the first violins. For the second movement, Metamorphoses, the escalation is not in pitch or dynamic, but rather in rhythm — the same chromatic materials are presented first in half notes, then progressively doubling the pace in quarter notes, eighth notes, and sixteenths. This lends a sense of accelerating intensity until the movement segues into the Apogee, a series of fortississimo chords which grow more complex until it sounds like all 12 notes of the chromatic scale are being played at once. Then the Epilogue begins with a unison melody, followed by a texture reversal from the Prologue, gradually ebbing from full orchestra to second cellos, then a solo cello (played ably and nobly by Assistant Principal Martha Babcock) alternating with increasingly chaotic commentary by the rest of the strings. This made for eerily beautiful modern music; Lutosławski uses tone rows to generate the orchestra counterpoint but doesn’t shy away from consonant intervals or beautiful expression. Kavakos and the BSO strings had a field day with this piece; the intervals were tuned with precision, and the unison melody was delivered with the kind of full-throated, throbbing gusto that would fit in well in a Shostakovich symphony.

After intermission, Kavakos led Beethoven’s Symphony #4 in B-flat, op. 60, without score or baton. The orchestra was placed similarly to the Lutosławski , with first violins on the left, seconds and violas in the middle, and cellos and basses on the right. As in that piece, Kavakos used his entire body to shape lines with sinuous flexibility, and the orchestra responded with a terrific performance. Throughout the symphony, the BSO demonstrated impressive dynamic range, playing hushed pianissimo moments with plenty of core sound, causing overtones to ring around. Loud segments were beautifully balanced, and the slow-burn crescendi to the loud segments were skillfully judged. Musical motifs moved between different sections seamlessly.

The general sound was richly bass-centric; I counted nine double bassists on stage and eight names in the double-bass section in the program; this implies that Kavakos wanted the kind of overtone-laden sound that the hefty bass section provided. The wind choir provided exquisite ensemble, making for memorably pungent chords in the slow movement. Special kudos are due to the soloists, Assistant Principal Oboe Keisuke Wakao, Principal Clarinet William Hudgins, Associate Principal Flute Elizabeth Ostling, and Third Horn Rachel Childers; Principal Bassoon Richard Svoboda was also very fine, though I would have liked a little more assertiveness in his solo passages. Moreover, every line in the symphony got loving attention. Even repeated-note figures had shape and direction and repeated material like in the third movement Allegro Vivace were handled differently each time, playing to different dynamic levels with different tapers. And the final Allegro ma non troppo took off at a blistering pace, showing off the virtuosic string and wind playing.

All those touches suggest a perfectionist conductor who insists on nailing all the details, tuning all the chords, balancing all the sections. So this is not merely a compromise to make up for unexpected cancellations, but a concert well worth hearing. Check out the introductory podcast here, and try to get to one of the other performances (Thursday, March 29 at 8 p.m., Friday, March 30 at 1:30 p.m., or Saturday, March 31 at 8 p.m.).

James C.S. Liu is a physician by day and a baritone and music enthusiast by night.  He lives with his wife and daughters in Cambridge, Massachusetts.


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

  1. I wonder if BSO will sell tickets only for half evenings and half price. I have no interests in this Lutosławski work and I have absolutely no interests in Beethoven 4th from THIS orchestra. I would love to hear Bach’s keyboard Concerto in D by violin but it will be over in 30 minutes. With the anticlimactic programs and middling play that BSO offers nowadays they can sell tickets by that time that a listener spent in the Hall, the way how the parking lots do….

    Comment by Romy The Cat — March 28, 2012 at 9:25 pm

  2. Romy the Cat is making a good point. Those who do not like 20th-21st century music may stay home or skip those works, while the public for modern music skips the second half of the program, which is usually reserved for 19th century. Programs mixing old and new may be many favored by critics, but many in public may think otherwise.

    Comment by Petros Linardos — March 29, 2012 at 10:07 am

  3. Mixing them is the only way to promote post-war 20C music. Think about it, perhaps even an ‘all Mendelssohn program’ could attract a good size audience. However certain all 20C program may empty the entire symphony hall, for example an ‘all Harbison program’.

    Romy certainly discouraged me. I am the stupid one who is only interested in No.4 Symphony. I agree that very likely I will not be pleased.

    PS: I remember James had an interesting Schumann Lieder cycle performance not long ago.

    Comment by Thorsten Zhu — March 29, 2012 at 12:14 pm

  4. “It’s refreshing to hear the BSO play Bach; apart from the St. John Passion, I can find no Bach on any BSO program at Symphony Hall going back at least five or six years (Bach is occasionally programmed at Tanglewood).”

    And this is one of the unexpected and unfortunate fallouts from the historical performance movement. “Modern” orchestras no longer regularly find their way to pre-Classical works. What a shame that historically informed performance has a monopoly on repertoire–especially when all of this is just about interpretation, “informed” or otherwise.

    Comment by Paul Cienniwa — March 29, 2012 at 12:36 pm

  5. *** Romy certainly discouraged me. I am the stupid one who is only interested in No.4 Symphony. I agree that very likely I will not be pleased.

    I think we can form a business around it. We can book bets regarding the quality of upcoming BSO play. I bet a case of delicious Cat food that tonight No.4 will sound like multi-meaning pretentiousness in the first movement, as badly composed soundtrack from an epic Hollywood movie in second movement. They probably will semi-pull off the third movement with some brisk tempo and the meaningless appeal to instant gratification. In the last movement they most likely will lose themselves and 1/3 orchestra will play another Ozawa’s Debussy, the second third will play Mozart for “Hooked on Classic” release and the last third will struggle between a desire to render notes, to yawn and to stick the earplugs deeper. The audience will for sure will welcome the coda with standing ovation, the screams of “bravo” in Italian, Irish and Taiwanese along with the rest of our Symphony Hell’s habitual rituals.

    Comment by Romy The Cat — March 29, 2012 at 4:28 pm

  6. Boy, the Thursday night concert revealed no perfectionist conductor whatsoever, and no details nailed (details yes, just no nailing). I was really surprised the BSO would engage such a clearly JV-level kid, with a fuzzy stick and demonstrating a nearly complete inability to get entrances/exits/ensemble right (much less at a Levine level). Beethoven 4 sounded gorgeous and oomphy, yes, rich and all that, and the violin playing and conducting were sumptuous, but there was not a single entrance that was not smeared, if only a bit. Lots of energy, weak control. And that Beethoven symphony wants (even) more precision than any of the others, with all of his rhythmic trickery and cross-playing and Haydenesque fooling.

    After the Beethoven the orchestra sat there sheepishly during the applause, grinning with the barest touch of shame. It was not like the worst of the featureless Ozawa performances (of course he’s a much, much, much better conductor, technically and all other ways), but it had some of that chagrined feeling.

    The Bach sounded surprisingly meh to my ear (and I love Kavakos’s smart, powerful playing in the big violin concertos). The Lutoslawski was to my mind nifty and beautiful, most interesting to follow, a deftly made piece carefully performed, although not powerful enough at the climax compared with recordings. Comments above seem kinda sad.

    Comment by david moran — March 29, 2012 at 11:52 pm

  7. Thursday evening.

    Intro: Someone need to signal to lower the obeo volume (even though I did). The last thing we want to hear in the opening is the mysterious atmosphere being disrupted.

    1st mov.: Where are all those short pulses? It is almost like they are playing ‘staccatos'(no, I need a better word). Can someone check if those are on the score?

    2nd and 3rd mov.: I don’t want to be political correct any more. With more than 50% female 1st violinists, most of who are Asian female violinsists, my question is, can they be masculinely expressive in Adagio and do they know how to play Beethoven’s humor in the 3rd movement? They played them in an unbearably dull style.

    4th mov.: Romy was right. Dave was right. Completely lack of clarity and precision.

    Comment by Thorsten Zhu — March 30, 2012 at 12:31 am

  8. Just got home from Thursday evening concert, went primary for Bach.

    As I always say: you never know where to find and where to lose and it is always nice to recognize myself as an idiot – the concert turned out to be absolutely not what I expected.

    The Bach’s Concerto did not sound right to me. Leonidas Kavakos felt like was trying to play “faster” then his OWN tempo. He did not play well with the ensemble and the play was to large degree hit and miss in the first movements. The whole Concerto was not where I would like it to be but the last few minutes of Adagio they did hit the jackpot and it was done very sophisticatedly. If anything can be more magnificent then well-played Bach then I do not know what it is. Well, I know that it might be Bruckner but Bruckner is kind of alien word in Boston…

    The Lutosławski was the typical “Lutosławski” and I did not care about it too much today but then I heard that second movement, or whatever movement it was: after the double basses pings. That was magnificently composited, phenomenally played and very smartly conducted. I will be running tomorrow to buy that “Muzyka żałobna” and I want to hear that second movement again! If somebody can advise any specific recording then please do so.

    Then the Beethoven came. BSO playing Beethoven is a subject of my laughs for years. Today Mr.Kavakos and BSO truly made me to shut up. How Mr. Kavakos made BSO to play with such a fanatic balance of ENTHUSIASM and GRAVITAS is completely unknown to me but it was wonderful. At least I did not hear THAT level of Beethoven from BSO for years and years and it was well above the horrorble Levine takes on Beethoven with BSO. No, it was not perfect Beethoven 4th and not perfect play. The brass hardly was able to hit right notes and there were a lot of other problems. However it was not what is important. The important was the holistic sense of interpretation and performing intend that was very serious. In the last movement the Mr. Kavakos and BSO deflated the pressure, as the result drama had evaporated, I have no idea why. Still, it was very noble attempt all tougher and I feel that if you care about New England sound of Beethoven than what Leonidas Kavakos and BSO demonstrated in my view very much deserved to be heard.

    Comment by Romy The Cat — March 30, 2012 at 1:19 am

  9. It’s wonderful not being a musician! Poor Mr. Zhu, Mr. Moran, and Mr. Cat (if he was there, but he didn’t have to be, because he knew without even listening to it that it would be no good) had a terrible evening, but I was able to enjoy it because I was blissfully unaware of all the nits that ruined the experience for them. If only I knew what it was supposed to be like, I could have been as unhappy as they are.

    Actually, the thoughts had crossed my mind that 1.) it’s odd of them to do Bach, 2.) the Lutosławski will probably be pretty tough to take, 3.) I really don’t like the last two movements of the Beethoven 4th, 4.) this is a weird program as a whole, and 5.) why are they bringing a minor leaguer to conduct in “the Fenway Park of Music”. If I didn’t have a subscription, I might have stayed home. So you can imagine my surprise when I liked it all. Even the Lutosławski and the last movements of the Beethoven sounded like music.

    The experience was slightly diminished by the nearness of some students from Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School in Maryland, who had just arrived by bus on Thursday 100 strong. It was great to see all the young people there. And I’m sure they had someting to do with the fact that every movement of the Bach and Beethoven was applauded. Unfortunately a few near me decided to engage in some conversation and playing of video games during the first half. Management and chaperones established proper decorum for the Beethoven.

    All in all, a memorable evening at Symphony, and quite enjoyable for one who doesn’t have the depth of knowledge to realize how intolerable it really was.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — March 30, 2012 at 1:38 am

  10. Crossing posts: I was writing while Romy posted. I’m happy to see that he found it better than expected.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — March 30, 2012 at 1:41 am

  11. People,

    I would like to mention again, with more focus, what Mr.Kavakos showed in Boston with his Beethoven 4. Our BSO (very much like any other US orchestras) have no tone, no cultural discipline and no instruments to play Beethoven in the way how the greatest Germanic orchestras can do but it does not mean that Beethoven music might be prohibitive for us. Orchestral Beethoven is tricky. Behind all that majesty of expressions and melodies there is some invisible sense of identity – the “Beethoven gravitas” – or a certain substance or depth and weight of music that seldom exist in many other composers. Other composers might just scratch that gravitas but Beethoven has “it” in all of his music output. It is very hard to play Beethoven’s light and playful music and to show that gravitas. It very seldom happens. Since I moved from Philadelphia to Boston in 1995 I hardly ever heard from BSO that “Beethoven gravitas”. The last night Mr.Kavakos did show it and he did it with probably one of the lightest Beethoven symphonies!

    You can express much cretinism to the “JV-level” of Mr.Kavakos conducting but the proof in the pudding: BSO first time for many years played Beethoven “properly” (in my view). For sure there were huge numbers of mistakes and imperfections but they are absolutely irrelevant from certain perspective. What is relevant was a very interesting take over Beethoven that I feel need to be heard by anybody in Boston who are interested in “right ways” to play Beethoven. Do not be critical to the details and look at the performance beyond you parochial critical anal-retentiveness, get the 50.000 feet view over what Mr.Kavakos does.

    I would like to hear more Beethoven in Boston like this. Was it Mr.Kavakos accomplishment? Was it an accident or was it some lucky arrangement of stat in that day? I do not know the ansver. What I do know that for years I have been thinking to host Beethoven Symphonic Marathon, where all Beethoven symphonies would be played in their “proper” and “kinky” ways – the way how Beethoven Symphonies deserved to be played. (In fact my life-long wet dream is to host Bruckner Listening Marathon but in this town Bruckner enthusiasts are in closet) So, purely from educational perspective the second part of the Kavakos’ first movement of the Beethoven 4th might be played at my hypothetic Beethoven Symphonic Marathon – it was that good last night.

    I do not know if Mr.Kavakos will be able to pull it off today or tomorrow, for sure I will be listening the Saturday concert over WCRB. I am very seriously considering attending Saturday concert, this time juts for the Beethoven and to sit at better sits. I think that the “strategic Beethoven” that BSO and Mr.Kavakos played last night was a sort of a comet that showed up on Boston’s horizon for a short time and next time might be witnessed in 73 years…. Again, thanks to Kavakos and thanks to BSO for the last evening and I hope on Saturday they will be able to do the same but with less pitiful playing mistakes.

    Comment by Romy The Cat — March 30, 2012 at 7:43 am

  12. Totally agree with Romy The Cat that the Beethoven last night was a great unexpected treat: who knew that the 4th symphony could be unpredictable, experimental, youthful, delighting in having lost its way? (And did hearing the Bach adagio, and then the eerie, unearthly Lutoslawsky, perhaps help us to hear the opening adagio of the 4th with fresh ears?) More deeply, has the “rudderless” atmosphere at Symphony Hall grown into positive post-modernity — where we glimpse at music the way it was when it was “on the edge”, mutinous and not yet “hallowed”? Even majestic Bach evoked the “uncanny” beauty of great fountains, imperious by day, deserted by night, all at once stable and unstable.

    Comment by Ashley — March 30, 2012 at 10:13 am

  13. Yes, Beethoven. The first time I ever heard the right sound for him was in Symphony Hall, and not all that long ago (twenty-plus years), although well into my life as a classical music lover. And soon as I heard it, I knew it! But the orchestra was not the BSO, it was the Leipzig Gewandhaus, under Kurt Masur. And then it was only an encore, the Egmont Overture. But omigosh! Afterwards I turned to my friend Larry Hare and saw on his face the same expression that must have been on mine.

    Comment by clarkjohnsen — March 30, 2012 at 2:52 pm

  14. The BSO Beethoven at worst is very well defined by Bernstein at Tanglewood in 1990. His death shortly after that did not make me sentimental enough to say the performance was moving. No at at all. Absolutely the worst Beethoven music making.

    That said, any coductor could be ‘greater’ than that. If by any chance I want to use ‘great’ to describe last night’s No.4, that would be the only situation, me comparing those two.

    BTW, the orchestra members do not necesarily always have the right opinions about the music they play. Trombonist Yeo listed Britten’s 4 preludes in the same Bernstein concert before Beethoven as one of his favorites. What a surprise!!! It was better than No.7 but much worse than what Mr. Newhouse had to offer the audience this season.

    Comment by Thorsten Zhu — March 30, 2012 at 2:56 pm

  15. Beethoven is being done SO well in Boston in terms of enthusiasm and gravitas. Discovery Ensemble:Beethoven 4

    Comment by DogfishIsAwesome — March 30, 2012 at 8:22 pm

  16. Whew…surely these comments cannot be indicative of most BSO concert goers? You still can’t come to grips with a little Lutosławski in the year 2012? Wow…that is very sad.

    Comment by David H. — March 31, 2012 at 12:43 am

  17. Dogfish.. Yes.. The Discovery Ensemble performances of the Beethoven Symphonies..3, 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8 have been the best heard in Boston in decades.  You can hear examples on YouTube (the 4th + 8th) complete.  GBH/ WCRB have done some @ Fraser Performance Studio.  Conductor Courtney Lewis personifies the word INTERPRETATION !

    Comment by Ed Burke — March 31, 2012 at 2:44 am

  18. David: UNFORTUNATELY these comments re: Lutosławski are indicative of the taste or should I say the lack of it amongstthe average BSO audience today.  The fact that a couple of hundred people leave after intermission if a work written after 1910 is on the program speaks volumes!  Sad.. close-minded individuals are not open to new musical experiences.  Given the cost of gas, parking and the annoyance of the commute: one wonders why these people don’t just stay home.I didn’t attend the the opening concert but a close friend who did reported that 1/3 of the audience on the floor applauded afterevery movement during the program.  The fact that the rest of the audience, especially in the balconies, applauded only inthe appropriate places was not a lesson these rude individuals were willing to learn. 

    Comment by Ed Burke — March 31, 2012 at 9:59 am

  19. I was at the Thursday performance and loved it, so went back Friday afternoon. The Lutoslalwski was hauntingly moving, starting with the opening mourning notes from Ass’t Principal Cellist Martha Babcock, gradually adding other strings, then dying – almost literally – down to her solo cello at the end… Robert Kirzinger mentioned in his pre-concert talk on Friday that it was almost a shame to have an intermission, interrupting a flow from the profund grief of the Lutoslawski to Beethoven’s “sunniest” symphony.  an additional “note”: Kirzinger’s program notes about the tritones in the Lutoslawski were immensely helpful, all they way through.

    Yes, those high school students started the clapping, but the amusing part was that others in the audience who obviously knew better joined in, thinking they were adding to an unusual enthusiasm, and not a multitude of — shall I dare say — ignorant attendees? And two of their “chaperones” on separate occasions had to leave their seats to reprimand some students. Clearly, the BSO cannot rely on school supervisors to provide Guides to Listening (and Behavior). Perhaps a gentle handout is in order? Bad behavior was not limited to the young, however. On Friday, a white-haired woman sitting in the fourth row, left side, about six seats from the side, sitting with a black-haired man, took a flash picture of Kavakos while he was playing the Bach!

    Comment by Norton, Bettina A — March 31, 2012 at 9:26 pm

  20. in regards to applause:  is it a positive or negative that there are listeners in the hall for whom concertgoing is a new experience?Or, were they perhaps merely demonstrating “historically informed” audience behavior? 

    Comment by Josh Nannestad — March 31, 2012 at 11:08 pm

  21. RE applause: I am wondering if it also might be something from Kavakos himself? It is (remotely) related to my professional work as a psychologist, so I was watching him & the audience very closely and I think he had a good deal of, so to say, ‘theatricality’ in his gestures at the ends of movements. Other conductors typically keep these gestures for finishing the pieces. Although no gesturing could explain the obnoxious applause on Saturday, it very much spoiled the Bach.And I agree with Romy the Cat that Kavakos pulled off majestically just that ‘holistic’ atmosphere which makes Beethoven The Beethoven. I don’t know #4 close enough and I am not fond of it enough to watch for specific things or to catch mistakes but I think I can recognize this one as a very good Beethoven :) Though my personal passion tonight was with Lutoslawski – that little live Lutoslawski that I can get in Massachusetts. It was beautifully done, with excellent precision that this piece requires. (And Saturday’s climax blew my mind off, whatever others might have thought.)

    Comment by walkersilly — April 1, 2012 at 1:22 am

  22. Some postfactum thoughts after the Saturday concert.Last night I decided do not drive to city and to listen home over FM. The calamity that WCRB had with sound last week was timely addressed and now we have good sound from them. My tail was trembling full of desire to hear Kavakos Beethoven with BSO again. I warmed up my main playback system, tuned my Rohde & Schwarz to 99.5, took good shower, put good cloths on, sat in my listening chair, lit my bit $60 Cohiba and at 8PM I was ready to be submerged to the next round of magic.Bach did not work for me. The majesty of the second movement’s conclusion was this time a bit diluted. The last movement they played much better then on Thursday but all together I still prefer to have the piece as a keyboard work. I need to confess that Bach’s first keyboard concerto I value as the most brilliant piece of keyboard music. For years when new people come to my listening room I open listening event with the concerto. To me it is one of the greatest psychedelic compositions and I perhaps feel too violated to have it for violin. Also, and it is my long standing sentiment – violin might be quit ugly instrument and at time Mr. Kavakos did demonstrate his violin’s full ugliness. No, I do not knock the Kavakos play. Just with some speed of execution and some phrasing there is something esthetically displeasing to me in violin sound. I also do not agree with the way how Kavakos used dynamics of his phrasings, particularly in first movement.

    In good hands a dynamically-dead harpsichord has more dynamic range than the Mr. Kavakos’ violin. I would like to hear much more kinky play with dynamics in the concerto. Unfortunately Mr. Kavakos made it “fast and loud” – a good recipe to please the egger to applaud Fenway-level crowd in Symphony Hall but wrong way to satisfy a snobby pussy like me. Lutosławski was fine. “David H.” above commented that it is shame do not “get” Lutosławski in 2012 but it is not about the do not liking Lutosławski. It was said in context of the fact that this Lutosławski work was not something that makes people to stop cut the stupid grass on suborns and to run to city, if you know what I mean. The Lutosławski was not main event and it was more like a program filler. For sure it was a good listening experience but no cigars, pun intended – my cigar was lit for Beethoven 4 after what I hear on Thursday.

    The Beethoven 4 was basically the same “tune” as it was on Thursday. BSO played with fewer mistakes, played much cleaner but with slightly less enthusiasm. Kit was not even a lack of enthusiasm but some sort deficiency of super-playfulness and the spectacular teasing that Kavakos and his orchestra demonstrated on Thursday. I absolutely in love with the way how Kavakos made BSO to roll into forte volumes. It was wonderfully measured with spectacular harmonic glow – sort of voluptuous Beethoven – and it is the only way in my mind how Beethoven shall be played. Levine during his first year or two was trying to develop that “spongy voluptuousness” in BSO sound but it never settled and BSO keep playing Beethoven as it is some kind of cardboard-made bas-relief sculpture.Here is Mr. Kavakos came and showed some Beethoven with meet on bones – eventually!!! Can we invite him to close Tanglewood with Beethoven 9?

    A few more words about Leonidas Kavakos. If you listen his WCRB’s broadcast interview with Brian Bell then you might note that it was different. Usually guest conductors when they speak with Brian are trying to sell the work to public, play sort of marketing games with audiences. There is nothing wrong with it but too predictable and semi-annoying. Leonidas Kavakos was different – it was zero BS and the man just shared how he felt. It was very unscripted, spontaneous and very fresh. I do not know Kavakos conducting, I never heard him before but from what I have experienced this week I would like to see him less playing and more conducting. Please, somebody give to the man a good orchestra and unleash him on less chicken type of music.  If he was able to pull the “voluptuousness playfulness trick” with our frigid BSO then I really would like to hear what Mr. Kavakos will do with Bruckner leading Vienna, Berlin or NDR Symphony.

    Comment by Romy The Cat — April 1, 2012 at 9:50 am

  23. An outstanding concert on Saturday night. Each performance touched upon sublimity at times, especially the Lutosławski (whose fading final moments were fatally marred, alas, by some of the rheumiest, most resonant coughing outbursts I’ve ever heard in Symphony Hall…and I’ve heard far too many!). Afterwards, all eyes on stage were rolling with utter disbelief – including Kavakos and the tender soloist whose cello ushers the piece into eternal stillness, Martha Babcock. But what a piece! Its opening build put me in mind of that vast 20th C. masterpiece, Bartók’s Music For String Instruments, Percussion and Celesta. I agree with some of the commenters above that the Beethoven 4th was outstanding. Perhaps the band had tightened up since Thursday night – for the most part, entrances were sharp, and the magnificence of LvB’s churning infrastructures was everywhere abounding.  This performance possessed gravitas indeed, and afterwards there were no expressions of ‘sheepishness’ to be found.As for the Bach: the 1st movement felt a little too fast to fully disclose the transcendent wisdom of the solo part, transfixing though Kavakos’ playing was. To my ears, it was in the latter movements that the stars aligned, pulling the heart ever upward.One other thing: props to Josh’s wry query about the ‘historically informed’ applause issuing from so many between movements last night. I used to experience a mild but visceral shock at such times, as others trespassed both on the afterglow of the preceding movement and upon the hoary – but not that hoary! – conventions governing this special realm of musical expression. I no longer do, though – I appreciate appreciation more and more, and newness, freshness, being real. I’m with Manny Ax: bring…it…on!

    Comment by nimitta — April 1, 2012 at 10:32 am

  24. Romy, I have a feeling, you might have immersed yourself in the strong bad feeling about BSO Beethoven. It is diddicult for me to understand your enthusiasm (just as I don’t understand why people sing highly of last year’s Heldenleben). I can only say about Thursday evening. The first movement was better, the middle movements were lackluster and the 4th movement was out of control (no precision in erpetuum mobile, woodwind making ugly sounds …)

    If I may, my recipe for you (and others) is to get one or two major brand No.4 CD from your collection shelf. I am sure you will quickly find Kavakos ‘is only human’. I had my own experience. For a period of a year or so, I listned/watched some Beethoven concerts/videos and I never found I had high enthusiasm towards those performances. Then I played the CD of my favorite conductor. Just after a few notes, Beethoven’s music moved me to tears. So in that way, I knew I was right.

    Comment by Thorsten Zhu — April 1, 2012 at 10:51 am

  25. Yes, Thorsten Zhu, I do see your point. The Beethoven 4 is not the work that I have in the top of my mind when I think about Beethoven and I did not make any adulation comments about Kavakos’ interpretation the work. I do NOT have too acquired taste for the symphony and if I look at it closer then I might discover other takes upon Beethoven 4. I just do not how I would arrange the work myself and I do not remember (or care) how my favorite conductors played the work. Perhaps as you suggest I like the event so much just because it was the only symphonic Beethoven played in town and it happened to become a focus of attention. I did like what I heard and it might lead me to look for more stimulating version of Beethoven 4 – something that I never paid attention. Still, my primary excitement is/was not about me “discovering” the Beethoven 4 but from the fact that BSO did show up very appealing Beethoven Sound generally. BSO did not build volume before in the same way as they did under Kavakos and THAT was the motivation for my very hospitable acclaim.

    Comment by Romy The Cat — April 1, 2012 at 11:25 am

  26. >> really would like to hear what Mr. Kavakos will do with Bruckner leading Vienna, Berlin or NDR Symphony >>somebody give to the man a good orchestra

    While last night’s Beethoven 4 sounded a little crisper, as one would expect, the above is almost certainly not going to happen, or not soon, just from Kavakos’s middling technique.
    As Jeremy Eichler pointed out in the Globe before any of our comments /reactions:

    >> As a conductor, Kavakos gives the impression of someone with deep musical instincts who is essentially learning on the job

    Comment by david moran — April 1, 2012 at 12:17 pm

  27. I listened to the concert on WAMC/Albany last night. The Beethoven 4th was OK but not the best — there was a fair amount of smudged playing even in this Saturday night repetition. The audio engineering made this symphony sound like the Beethoven Oboe Concerto, that’s how close the principal was miked — and that principal played with as pronounced a slow vibrato, short phrases and peculiarly squeaky tone as I have ever heard. Terrible.

    The other works were OK also, but not played fantastically well either. The audience was mostly noisy throughout. I’m glad I didn’t travel out there to hear it in person.

    Comment by Don Drewecki — April 2, 2012 at 10:21 am

  28. Don Drewecki , you are paying attention to the superfluous things. If you want flawless notes rending then buy the industry- proven dead CDs. You can’t expect from live broadcast a flawless execution – this is a third tier orchestra trying to breathe some air- what do you want from them?

    Sound of broadcast was fine. Yes some woodwinds were not playing but hard-whistling but if that would be the only problem imaginable then I am very ready to close my eyes to it. You did not hear the broadcast 2 weeks back, didn’t you? If you did then you would accept the sound we had last week as a Messiah…

    You however must not deny the magnificent bottom glow that BSO show off with this Beethoven. You will VERY seldom hear it so wonderfully done. In fact I was listening on Sunday the play twice early morning, than the WCRB repeat broadcast (that is always in compromised quality) and then last night I was not able to refuse myself a pleasure to hear that Beethoven glow again. I was hearing that glow from my bathroom, 4 rooms away – it was so much different and so wonderfully that I only hope BSO will be able to do it again sometimes.

    Comment by Romy The Cat — April 2, 2012 at 11:15 am

  29. Romy writes: “You however must not deny the magnificent bottom glow that BSO show off with this Beethoven. You will VERY seldom hear it so wonderfully done.”

    I disagree. The best modern live performance I have heard was by the conductorless Orpheus Chamber Orchestra at Troy Music Hall 10 years ago. The greatest old performance was Toscanini and the NBC Symphony from November 1939. And the microphoning of this was so claustrophobic that every last slip and smudge came through, in addition to spotlighting the terrible principal oboe and turning him into the soloist of Beethoven’s newly-discovered Oboe Concerto, a transcription of the Fourth Symphony.

    Comment by Don Drewecki — April 3, 2012 at 11:21 am

  30. it was not the mic

    “Someone need to signal to lower the obeo volume (even though I did). The last thing we want to hear in the opening is the mysterious atmosphere being disrupted.”

    Comment by Thorsten Zhu — April 3, 2012 at 11:33 pm

  31. Don, at least we do agree that the BSO oboe playing was horrifying – this is a good start. When I was there on Thursday I did not feel that oboe was overly prominent but it was from the sits that make BSO Sound generally very contra-brilliant and in a way blunt (second balcony, left, sit 30). I took the sit with aim for Bach with the stretchy leading violin, for Beethoven symphony I would take different sits. Anyhow, I did not have any problems with oboe balance when I heard it live.

    The microphoning that WCRB use is completely different story. I do agree with your that whole woodwind family was a bit ridicules but there is so much more than that. If you hear broadcasts regularly then you know that for last 2-3 years WGBH/WCRB do not have a proper prostration of BSO. The whole area in front of conductor and the conductor was not there. This brings very ugly presentation of imaging during broadcasts. If you use playback installation with time-aligned drivers and Bessel curve filtration then you get very objective idea of what WCRB imaging is. Up to recently they had no woodwinds and any soloists, would it be cello, piano or violin, were just subjects of fandom imagination – they played from right and left loudspeaker but not from the center of stage. A typical BSO piano concerto has a stereo imaging of piano playing from location of the last chair of fist violins but bass notes come from the position of principal second violin. The leading stings even more ridicules – I heard broadcast where cello C and G strings were played from extreme left and D and A from extreme right loudspeakers. You can’t not imagine how ridicules it sounds, if you do not believe then stop by and I will be happy to demonstrate it to you. To me it sounds that some of the mics are in contra-phase…

    It looks like recently they make some modification and now we do have some more or less proper center imaging. You can see more mics hanged I air and you can clearly hear that now the BSO percussion section is VERY NICELY presented, eventually! I have no idea what they did but I think that they just jack up the volume of the microphones that cover space upfront of contactor. Hey, what do you know – your favorite oboe sits right in there and it is possible that the way how the oboeis holds his instrument it hits the G-spot of the directional microphones. Do I like it? No, I do not. Can I tolerate it? Probably as I have see much worse results.

    Sure, it is not a big deal to fix the problem but the problem is that no one cares and it looks like there are no owners on that subject. From what I heard BSO plays a complex political game about the ownership of the microphones and sometime the absolutely ridicules people end up mixing the BSO balance at the mixing board. As I presume the WCRB people have limited ability to do anything – they just get feed from BSO mixing board. I presume that individually people know what they do but the situation of multiple cooks in one tine kitchen makes the BSO broadcasts have no sonic owner.

    So, it was not a Beethoven’s newly-discovered Oboe Concerto but another day in the life from an environment which has no clear definition of ownership and responsibility… I do feel that nowadays (last month), despite of everything, the WCRB sound if fine. Honestly, what I did like in the Beethoven 4 concert has absolutely nothing to do with overly-prominent oboe. If you feel that they had no other problems then oboe than you are incorrect. Still with whatever problems they had I feel that it was the most interesting BSO Beethoven for many year I am been listening them.

    Comment by Romy The Cat — April 4, 2012 at 10:53 am

  32. Romy writes: “Sure, it is not a big deal to fix the problem but the problem is that no one cares and it looks like there are no owners on that subject.”

    No, as I said several months ago, there’s a cadre of audio engineers who are members of a religious cult called The Church of the Sacred Spaced Omnis, who subscribe to this technique and then use numerous accent mics within the orchestra to prove the correctness of their faith. It has nothing to do with the actual sounds on the stage but fidelity to dogma.

    Comment by Don Drewecki — April 7, 2012 at 12:44 pm

  33. Last night, after the Brahms Requiem a group of people, including myself, went to have some drinks (or whatever it was) and they had a discussion about Thorsten Zhu comments in this BMI thread. The people called it racism and the person who expressed it to be stupid. I was kind of surprised as I have an incredibly high sensitivity to any evidence of stupidity or racism but I did not remember any appearance of any racism that tock place in here. So, this morning I reread what Thorsten Zhu wrote:

    “I don’t want to be political correct any more. With more than 50% female 1st violinists, most of who are Asian female violinsists, my question is, can they be masculinely expressive in Adagio and do they know how to play Beethoven’s humor in the 3rd movement? They played them in an unbearably dull style.”

    OK, I hope we are adults; we can deal with what others think and we do not need to be alerted by the “multiple choices of fear” implanted into us by FoxNews – like marketing. There is racism as a pejorative justification of discrimination and there is racism as a tool to study cause/consequence patterns. In medical fields we use racial and ethnic discrimination to assess patient predisposition to a disease or a group of diseases. So, it is not about the “racism” per say but rather the way how “racism” used and what are the objectives are of the people who engage the racist views.

    Looking at what Thorsten Zhu said it might appear that his comment stupidly racial but there is much more behind it. The complaint that BSO 1st violins have lost masculinity and disabled to produce “bold” Sound, even if music is called upon it is not invalid. It has been going on for years and anybody who not just brainlessly go to the BSO concerts or senselessly render notes on BSO stage can’t be pleased with it. Thorsten was absolutely right. He implies that this tendency has a connection with increasing amount of Asian players in BSO strings section. I do not think that he insist that Asian players can’t play muscular but rather he brings his observation as a statistical perspective.

    I am not in position to argue for or against Thorsten’s view. I however, very much would like whoever is in the position to deal with BSO 1st violins to pay attention to the fact of it’s dullness and dynamic insipidness. THAT was the Thorsten’s objective and I only assure you that if BSO 1st violins will demonstrate as much balls as they were able to demonstrate in 40s-60s than neither Thorsten not anybody else will make any stupid “racial” comments in context of the subject.

    Comment by Romy The Cat — April 8, 2012 at 10:23 am

  34. I was going to leave this alone, but… about that applause… “Or, were they perhaps merely demonstrating ‘historically informed’ audience behavior?” Thas’ funny, mon! Myself listening at home, when such applause happens at Tanglewood I always attribute it to ignorant New Yorkers. But it happened here and I can’t recall a previous time when it was so loud and enthusiastic. So what did I do? I joined in! And laughed out loud too, because it was so right to do, after that gleaming music-making.

    Speaking of which, the bugbear of most performances these days, especially recordings, is note-spinning. (It’s there on the page so one has to play it but damned if I know what to say this time around so I’ll just repeat what I said earlier, okay?) This B4 had vanishingly little of that and I confess I don’t know how such play is achieved — there’s not enough rehearsal time to attend to every measure involved. But sometimes it just seems to happen, and so I attribute it to InSpiration.

    Comment by Clark Johnsen — April 8, 2012 at 2:32 pm

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