Last night the Boston Symphony Orchestra kicked off its 76th season at Tanglewood in an all-Tchaikovsky program led by Rafael Frühbeck Burgos with with featured soloist Joshua Bell. Two crowd-pleasing favorites brought many in the Koussevitzky Music Shed to their feet.
The program opened with Joshua Bell soloing in Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D, op. 35. This now-canonized work has become our very definition of the Romantic violin concerto. Despite its familiarity, Bell and de Burgos engaged in an intense collaboration to harmonize the solo and orchestral voices, seeking to match articulation, phrasing, and rubato. Bell, now a conductor, used body language to lead and direct the music; this embodiment of the music, combined with Bell’s charisma, put me in mind of eyewitness reports of Paganini performing in the 19th century. The comparison is apt given Bell’s prowess on the violin: his playing was precise, clean, accurate, and always musical. Certainly the audience succumbed to the soloist’s charms. Frühbeck, for his part, watched Bell like a hawk. If only the orchestra had been as attentive to all of the cues offered them. The orchestra offered an innocuous backdrop for the solo violin; mercifully Bell more than carried this performance. Using a variety of tones and colors, Bell wrung nuance and depth out of this warhorse work. One telling example: the solo violin is muted at opening of the Canzonetta, and in many performances and recordings this passage is played for color but the dynamic is ramped up from the score’s p to mf (after all, this being a solo line). Bell played it as a true piano, achieving both the darker color con sordino and the covered sound of a quieter dynamic while muted. Although he has performed this work countless times, Bell still made it fresh and exciting music in the moment. In fact, I think Bell has never once phoned in a performance and that is a remarkable testament to him in his lengthy career. What kept this performance from rising to the ranks of stellar and memorable concert-going experiences, unfortunately, was the orchestra’s lack of nuance (especially in the homogeneous and unchanging sound of the strings throughout the work). Not following Bell and Frühbeck in the stringendo at the end of the first movement did not help, either. The orchestra played its safe and familiar version of this concerto, and that is a crying shame.
Following intermission, Frühbeck and the band returned for Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 in E Minor, op. 64. Fate, anguish, drama, and tortured homosexuality: all the usual elements of Tchaikovsky’s compositions are here, wrapped in a suitably Slavic package.
What Tchaikovsky has wrought is passionate and thrilling. This performance began in an appropriately spirited vein with the clarinets wringing pathos out of their near-solo line that starts the Andante and sets the opening them of the first movement which carries on into the Allegro con anima. Somewhere in the development section, though, the music flagged and became more listless, maybe because of the extreme heat the shirtsleved players were experiencing. As the remaining three movements of the symphony unfolded there were impassioned moments and frissons of excitement. In the end, though, I left the concert captivated by the music but not by the performance. I found the experience frustrating—far removed from the warmth, grit, variegated color, tonal richness, and sublime beauty that one can hear in top-notch performances of this music. Tchaikovsky did not compose that anguish here, so I think he, too, would have been frustrated. For all the stellar playing (and with Tchaikovsky that alone is saying quite a lot), each voice, each section, seemed to have its own ideas about phrasing, articulation, and macroscopic-level form and shape. As phrases passed from one instrument or section to the next, the changes were not just in range, timbre, and color but also style. I am sorry the BSO did not rise to the stellar heights which they are more than capable of scaling.
Nonetheless I look forward to an exciting Tanglewood season.