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.).