The Boston Symphony Orchestra closes their 2011-2012 season with three weeks of concerts led by Conductor Emeritus Bernard Haitink. The 83-year-old Dutch maestro started the first week last night with two youthful masterworks in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1 in C, op. 21 (written when the composer was 29) and Mendelssohn’s overture and incidental music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. (The overture, op. 21b, was written when Mendelssohn was 17, the incidental music, op. 61, at the ripe old age of 34).
The first of Beethoven’s nine symphonies was created to round out a solo concert in Vienna in 1799 and written in the shadow of the symphonic masterworks of Haydn and Mozart. There are strong elements of the Classical galant style in the four movements, but the unexpected harmonic twists and the opening figure of the finale, suggesting the compositional process as a simple idea is fleshed out and developed into the theme, are unmistakably Beethoven. Haitink’s reading of the symphony showed the conductor’s virtues and, perhaps, his shortcomings. This performance struck me as the musical equivalent of the nice boy next door that your parents want you to date — he has the right education, works a good job, is an unfailing gentleman, does everything right — and you’re left wishing he’d get a tattoo and ride a motorcycle. Every movement in the Beethoven was played with Haitink’s characteristic immaculate elegance and precisely regulated dynamics. Most of the tempos were brisk (except for the opening Adagio), but other conductors have found more propulsion and sense of direction, even at slower speeds. I was left with the sense of the Jimmy Stewart nice guy and yearned for a little more James Dean.
After this short first half, conductor and orchestra returned from intermission to provide a lively rendition of the Mendelssohn. This edition of the overture and incidental music was prepared by Ara Guzelimian, dean of the Juilliard School and writer and music critic. The edition, which Haitink conducted in Chicago in 2009 and in London last June, incorporates excerpts from the Shakespeare play with music that Mendelssohn wrote to accompany a full dramatic production in 1843.
There were problems with the opening here also; the overture begins with four chords played in a high register by the winds, and someone’s intonation wavered just enough to sour the third and fourth chords. The violins’ entrance was in fleet lockstep and breathtakingly quiet, and did make for a stark contrast with the full orchestral tutti. The will-o-wisp-ish Scherzo was also swift and light, but perhaps could have used a touch more rhythmic propulsiveness to keep the phrases moving forward. Things improved markedly as the voices entered. Master Shakespearean Claire Bloom sat at the front of the stage and used a microphone to read the Bard’s text. But this was no dull reciting; Bloom owned the stage, acting the text she read and offering a range of colors, shadings, and accents to hint at immortal Puck, young impetuous Hermia, and earthy country-bumpkin players. The singers were all in the back of the hall, soloists sitting amidst the chorus in striking, coordinated emerald green and sky blue gowns. Soprano Layla Claire, a member of the Metropolitan Opera’s Young Artist Development Program, offered flawlessly even, effortless high-range singing which filled Symphony Hall even from the back of the stage. Mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey matched Claire with a rich, dark, almost contralto-like tone and admirable, crisp diction. The PALS Children’s Chorus sang clearly and precisely, and the women of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus followed suit with crisp British diction and fine tone.
The playing of the Boston Symphony grew more interesting after speaker and singers presented the Song with Chorus. There was a charming rustic flair to the players’ rehearsal depicted in the Intermezzo, beautifully balanced brass playing in the Nocturne, and a rousing, sweeping rendition of Mendelssohn’s ubiquitous Wedding March. Bloom then offered an amusingly, alliteratively over-the-top abridgement of the Pyramus and Thisbe play-within-a-play, complemented by Haitink’s droll reading of the Fanfare and Funeral March (here the sober, sensible playing came across as underplayed-funny, with giggles emerging from the bassoon’s final low plop). The Dance of Clowns offered an exuberant reworking of a few motives from the overture, then the Wedding March was reprised just a hair louder than the first time. The singers returned for the Finale with Chorus, and Bloom delivered Puck’s final speech, accompanied by a better-tuned rendition of the four opening woodwind chords.
The program will repeat on Friday afternoon, April 20 and the evenings of Saturday April 21 and Tuesday April 24. In the next week, Maestro Haitink will conduct Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, Mozart’s Piano Concerto #22 with pianist Till Fellner, and Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony; and then he will close the BSO season with Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.