Stepping in for the Boston Civic Symphony’s conductor Max Hobart after he was taken ill on Wednesday, Boston Landmarks Orchestra director Christopher Wilkins reminded the audience that most of a conductor’s job with an orchestra is done behind the scenes, and that they would still get to hear “Max” that evening at the DCR Hatch Shell. If either the guest conductor or the BCS was disappointed that their colleague and leader couldn’t be there for the group’s appearance in the BLO summer series, it wasn’t noticable in this rhythmic, textured and inspired performance.
The opening bars of the prelude to Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg made it clear that rhythm and texture are priorities for “Max” as well as the BCS. The bright overture to one of Wagner’s few comic operas showed off the ensemble’s energy and colors, from crisp first violins down to resonant tuba, with brass and woodwinds bubbling between. Some listeners may have preferred a touch more warmth from the strings, but their lean sheen allowed for refreshing transparency rather than a familiar, plush wall of sound.
Rhythm and texture also served the first and fifth movements of Lalo’s Symphonie Espagnole well. Essentially a concerto drawing upon Spanish dances and themes, even background parts such as Rondo’s piping reeds demonstrated that the right orchestra never simply provides accompaniment. Twelve-year-old soloist and multiple competition winner Ilana Zaks in turn approached Lalo’s score with confidence, skipping through Lalo’s melodies and remaining melodious amidst spiraling runs. Her playful descending arpeggios, dancing interplay alongside the flute in the Allegro Non Troppo and unshakeable time (even following the orchestra’s rushed aside in the Rondo) combined youthful discovery and alert musicianship. Some thinness at the top of Zaks’s line and her brave but disjointed encore with Paganini’s Caprice 14 point to a young talent who owes it to herself and the music to keep growing, while never forgetting her own instincts.
Instinct no doubt played a key role shaping the visceral drive of the “Jupiter” movement from Holst’s The Planets, written by Holst to depict the “Bringer of Jollity.” Here and throughout the program, Wilkins’s light touch and pinpoint tempos allowed details such as foreboding brass pedals and the orchestra’s spongy mix to speak for themselves. Racing segments and false cadences unfolded with suspense, a real accomplishment, given this work’s history and popularity.
Following intermission, a similarly supple reading of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 was further enhanced by dynamics that were more felt than noticed. Sudden yet organic piano sections in the first movement jelled into well-paced crescendos. The lower strings’ slight lean into the third beat of the second movement’s well known, agonizing ostinato as well as another ideal tempo made debates over period instruments and historical aesthetics seem academic; this was neither Romanticized soup nor historically informed racetrack, but an ideal balance between meaningfulness and momentum.
Lucid contrapuntal textures reminded one that Beethoven was a contemporary of Mozart, and by extension a successor of Bach. The jovial Presto, with added buoyancy from the BSC strings, even recalled the sinfonie of the Neapolitans. Yet the hair-trigger harmonic twists and building tension of the concluding Allegro con Brio also reminded one that Beethoven was as radical as he was studious. The orchestra played to Beethoven’s Hell-raising tendencies by spotlighting some especially stinging dissonances. Some may have found it mannered; this reviewer found it witty and distinct. Also distinct was the thunderous finale, heard countless times, yet delivered here like a world premiere. The applause at the close of the program was a final reminder that the symphony orchestra is a vivid, varied, beautiful engine of sound, and that a conductor’s work is as much a product of the rehearsal space as the concert stage.
Andrew J. Sammut also writes for Early Music America and All About Jazz and blogs on a variety of music on his blog, Aesthetic, Not Anesthetic. He also plays clarinet and lives in Cambridge.