What was played at BSO’s Thursday evening concert was not the draw for some; rather it was the pianist Stephen Hough and conductor Charles Dutoit who were the attraction. Neither disappointed. If it could be said that truer poetics emerged it would be mostly on account of the performances of both soloist and orchestra. Virtually all of the instruments of the large modern orchestra were on stage for works of Hindemith, Liszt, and Prokofiev and the resultant sumptuousness of sound, along with Hough’s eloquent pianism, proved to be worth the price of a ticket to Symphony Hall.
Stephen Hough’s 21st-century approach to Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in E-flat removed any remnants of bombast and overplay we have all come to know all too well over many, many performances. Quite a revealing piece of information appears in BSO’s program notes: Hough is an author as well, having written extensively about theology. We remember that in his later years, Liszt himself went into the monastery. Whether or not such a leaning was present when the composer was at work on the piano concerto, a transcendental aura tinged the E-flat concerto under Hough’s prodigious hands.
Perhaps over and above all of the human emotional drama played out in the concerto, a higher plane, though elusive, might in fact be attainable. I am not completely sure of where I was taken by Hough’s playing. However, I did finally sense Liszt’s non-stop multi-movement declaration of Romantic fervor, loving and striving as possibly something that is meant for contemplation, an artifact upon which to reflect. Hough may very well have found something well beyond the concerto’s gesturing and emoting, its trilling and cadenza-like passages. Furthermore, this pianist conveyed this music selflessly and through a superb, clarity-bound technique.
It is probably time to weigh in on the looming matter of who should be the BSO’s new leader. For me, that would be Charles Dutoit. Isn’t “seeing” music being made a part of symphony going? If so, Dutoit heads the list for such extraordinary visual guides he gives through his experienced, passionate, and insightful conducting. Following his conducting while listening is akin in ways to following a score, a map as it were, but much, much more direct. His moves inform.
Here, I might point out one of the more enjoyable, yet both surprising and puzzling moments from last night’s concert. I missed what Dutoit meant when he dropped both arms alongside his body shaking them as if to get the sleeves back to where they belonged. Every time I have heard the BSO and Dutoit these past years, Symphony Hall has come alive, the orchestra as a whole, its sections, and its soloists, along with guest artists coalesce in unparalleled ways.
Encircling Liszt were Hindemith’s Symphonic Metamorphoses on Themes of Weber, the opener, and Prokofiev’s music from the ballet Romeo and Juliet (a mix from both Suites), coming after intermission, ending the concert before ten o’clock. And it should be said that the intermission did not outstay its welcome either by being just some 15 minutes long. And still more, if only an end to the loud practicing onstage especially before the concert could be eliminated, such discipline beyond music making would surely further elevate the BSO image if not make for a more perfect night of music listening.
Oddly, the Hindemith and Prokofiev mirrored each other in their penchant for melody after melody, harmony stepping outside traditional ways then only to return, and rhythm suggestive of marches and dances. More so, both composers involved the big orchestra and that’s where the concert succeeded. A list of colors is far too extensive even to begin to enumerate. The entire BSO from triangle to tuba sounded gloriously, from the tiniest of raindrops to a blast of thunder. If the musical substance was not always of greatest interest, then surely the sheer sound of the magnificent Boston Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Charles Dutoit compensated amazingly.