The Boston Symphony Orchestra’s concerts this weekend continue the guest conductorship of Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, in a program sandwiching the ultimate Rachmaninoff warhorse between two great BSO-commissioned works by Hindemith and Bartók. For the Thursday night performance, the house was sold out. Notwithstanding that the audience contained many younger faces, the thinning out at intermission spoke volumes about malformed cultural education; more on this later.
Frühbeck, now 80 and walking with difficulty, did most of his conducting seated, in front of an orchestra missing a fair number of its leading players: Concertmaster Malcolm Lowe, Associate Concertmaster Tamara Smirnova , and Assistant Principal Cello Martha Babcock were hors de combat. Assistant Concertmaster Elita Kang filled in for Lowe except for the Rachmaninoff, which, our vision not misleading us, was led by Julianne Lee. Sato Knudsen moved up to fill Babcock’s chair. Frühbeck began the program with Paul Hindemith’s Konzertmusik for Strings and Brass, op. 50, which the BSO under Koussevitzky commissioned for the orchestra’s 50th Anniversary in 1931. This commissioning program also yielded up Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms and many other major works by some of the best composers of the period. Compared to the Stravinsky, of course, all the others pale, but the Hindemith is interesting (if maybe not “one of the most thrilling orchestral works of the twentieth century,” as Hugh Macdonald’s program note gushed) and should be heard more often. It was one of a series of pieces he called “concert music” as a parallel to the ones he called “chamber music” written in his and the century’s raucous twenties. It came near the beginning of Hindemith’s transition from his nose-thumbing youth to the highly systematic, some might say pedantic, products of later years. In other words, there are strong elements of the classic Hindemith sound without the sense that it was being produced by formula. In two segmented movements, it has some arresting melodies and rhythms, a brilliant command of color in an unusual instrumental palette, and a compositional security that had not yet been over-displayed. It is an ebullient piece, like a two movement festive overture.
Hindemith chose to offset three quartets of brass instruments—four trumpets, four horns, and three trombones and a tuba—against a “quartet” of strings in which first and second violins were massed together as a single part, so that violins, violas, cellos and basses constituted the separate lines. The BSO players, especially the brasses, were all over it and could not have made more joyous noise with it. Where the performance proved less satisfactory was in the heavy-handedness with which Frühbeck kept pounding out more sound with rather little nuance; he kept waving his hand at the strings for more volume, but never told anyone to lighten up. There are better recorded performances that convey more of Hindemith’s playfulness in this piece.
The hall was full (we doubt it was for the Hindemith) because Elvis was in the building, in the form of pianistic megastar Lang Lang, improbably making his BSO subscription series debut, but not at all improbably by playing that Seabiscuit of warhorses, the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, op. 18. In a program insert, the BSO advised that the concert (which had already been designated the Henry Lee Higginson Memorial Concert) would be dedicated to the memory of Van Cliburn. One cannot imagine a more fitting program for the dedication; Lang Lang is among those few classical artists who convey the same rock-star aura Cliburn did in his prime.
It is a perhaps interesting that this most popular of Rachmaninoff’s works is one of his relatively few that concentrates its compositional focus on melody, which it delivers in spades. It is actually also a rather well put together piece, and a good deal less diffuse than others of the composer’s œuvre. There is more going on in the orchestra than is often found in pianistic showpieces, and Frühbeck, standing most of the time for this, was not about to let the audience forget about it. Some major solos from within the orchestra deserve particular mention, such as Michael Winter’s luxuriant yet sharp-edged horn passage near the end of the first movement and Thomas Martin’s rendition of the principal tune in the second, featuring some high-concept diffidence. In general, Frühbeck took great pains to clarify lines and spotlight the contrasts, particularly in the last movement, between the frenetic and poetic (sometimes bordering on lethargic) poles of Rachmaninoff’s “russissimo” style.
So what about the soloist? Of chops he has no end, of mannerisms likewise. The opening chords of the concerto, for piano alone, were well conceived and wrought: a crescendo from nothing up to just a mezzo forte, at which point the orchestra joins in. The slow movement was truly ravishing, with both soloist and conductor fully in sync in squeezing out its expressivity without descending to bathos. The outer movements were a mixed bag—best in quiet moments, a bit workmanlike and underwhelming in the clangorous ones. Lang Lang’s many sideward glances to the audience, alas, reminded us of the hackneyed traditions of 19th century virtuosos, as well as a certain performer who liked to keep candelabra on the piano. That said, it seemed that Lang Lang was trying to say something interesting about this piece, but either he couldn’t establish a consistent point of view or the public expectations for such a work and the éclat surrounding his first appearance with the BSO at Symphony Hall just kept getting in the way. Maybe he should try again with Mozart or…Bartók.
Which brings us to the closer, Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra. Of all the great works the BSO has commissioned, this one from 1943 continues to be owned by the orchestra more than any other. We’re not privy to the backstage lore or the socialization process of BSO musicians, but we’d like to think there’s some process by which anyone brought into the orchestra has got to absorb this colossus of the 20th century orchestral repertoire, as if it were a racial memory. To hear the BSO play it is a privilege (and to hear anyone play it live is a revelation in color and dynamics in comparison to any recorded performance). This should explain our dismay when even younger audience members filtered out during intermission. It wasn’t a mass movement by any means, but it was enough to confirm that too many still can’t see “what makes it great.” In the event, these exodists missed something really special. The many brass and wind solo and small-group performances (notably in the second movement “game of pairs”) were truly extraordinary, and Frühbeck, as an outsider, made significant contributions in pointing up phrase endings and ensuring clarity of line. His take on the piece was a bit harder-edged than some of the lush performances BSO music directors have given (e.g. Leinsdorf and Ozawa), except that he took full advantage of the colors Bartók painted for the “night music” sections of the slow movement, around a fulsomely impassioned center.
There is no point sugarcoating the fact that composers, like other creative artists, are not always the best judges of their own or their colleagues’ work. Bartók made merciless fun of Shostakovich in the fourth movement “interrupted intermezzo,” and this was doubtless due to pure ignorance of his parodic victim’s need to dissemble in order to survive in Stalin’s USSR. Be that as it may, the brass’s raspberries were brilliantly rendered. Our one regret was Frühbeck’s reticence with Bartók’s grand melody in this movement, one of the two greatest tunes of 20th century classical music (the other, since you asked, is Villa-Lobos’s from the fifth Bachianas Brasileiras). Frühbeck’s leadership of the finale was characterized by a perfectly judged momentum in tempo and dynamics which brought the audience from the edge of its seats to its feet. If you can catch one of the remaining performances, don’t pass it up.