Sometimes it is worth listening to 100 mediocre concerts to get the chance to hear a performance as fabulous as the Boston Symphony Orchestra with Yo Yo Ma. With turmoil everywhere in the orchestra world these days, to be able to hear this Rolls Royce of an orchestra is even more of a gift than it might be at other times. There is not a weak link within the BSO, and last night’s performance proved it.
Under the direction of Stephane Deneve, the orchestra performed Prokofiev’s Suite from Love for Three Oranges Suite, op. 33BIS, Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No 1 in E-flat, op. 107, and Richard Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben, op. 40. All the pieces featured a large orchestra, and in the case of the Strauss work, a large string section, winds in 4s, 8 horns, 5 trumpets, 3 trombones, 2 tubas, 2 harps and considerable percussion. Symphony Hall was built for forces like this, and it held the sound magnificently. The strings had depth and power from front to back, with nary a sour note. This is what an orchestra is supposed to sound like!
The Prokofiev work is a series of 6 short movements drawn from his infrequently performed opera, Eccentrics, Magician Tchelio and Fata Morgana Play Cards, March, Scherzo, The Prince and the Princess, and Flight. John Williams has borrowed heavily from Prokofiev’s playfully dissonant style, so even someone not familiar with classical music is likely to recognize the sound. The March in particular has been heavily used elsewhere. The violins at times sounded like rustling leaves, and the eery and thunderous percussion in the Magician movement were outstanding. The Prince and Princess movement featured a lovely muted viola solo, and the unusual pairing of solo violin and trumpet in duet. The rich and powerful tuba gave depth and breadth to the whole orchestra. What a player!
Ma joined the orchestra for the Shostakovich Concerto. In a world with few superstars, Yo Yo Ma stands out, not only for his impeccable musicianship but for the consistency of his playing and the variety of music he explores. He is always good, and he never rests on his laurels. This performance left nothing to be desired, though at times his sound seemed a bit muted. This seemed more a quirk of acoustics than a problem of balance; the orchestra was at all times a sensitive partner. The best string players’ sound is as much dependant on the subtlety and strength of their bow arm as the fleetness of their fingering hand, and Ma’s bowing has a nice, bitey edge. Prokofiev and Shostakovich both play with dissonance, but where Prokofiev’s sound creates an impish humor, even in the sweetest of his melodies Shostakovich’s sound has a touch of vinegar. Despair and fear lurk too close to the surface to ever entirely disappear, so a creepy, furtive quality entangles itself with his most powerful outcries. Richard Sebring, solo horn, was given credit in the program, and he richly deserved it. Not only is his horn playing golden and sweet, it has power enough to cut through the bars of a gulag cell, laser sharp. Ma’s solo cadenza was a deep interior monologue, reflective and brooding. He and the orchestra received a raucous standing ovation, much deserved.
Strauss’s music has a sweeping romanticism that at this point in history has a touch of faded sachet in it. Loosely telling a story of the life of a hero (the composer), it features nit-picky woodwinds as critics, gorgeous violin gestures, massive brass choirs, and a discernible program that underlies but doesn’t control the 45 minute work. At times there are snippets of Strauss’s other works woven into the texture. The program notes described the work as kaleidoscopic, and that truly fits the swirling nature of the work. From the opening theme to its return at the end, with a hint of Thus Spake Zarathustra devolving from minor to major, this is an epic work. The orchestra gave its all, with Malcolm Lowe’s solo violin prominent throughout.
Deneve was a pleasure to watch. He is tall, with a confident presence on the podium and a clear beat. What a refreshing contrast to some more needlessly theatrical conductors! Deneve has no need of gimmicks, as he teases and balances the sound of the various sections with masterful surety. From the audience perspective, a conductor’s back has to convey the sense of the music, while to the musicians on stage, he needs to convey his understanding of what the composer intends. Deneve accomplishes both. He had the whole hall so thoroughly in his hands that he was able to maintain the silence at the end of the work for an extra few minutes, giving Strauss’s notes just a little longer to ring.
If you can hear the next few performances of this concert, don’t miss it. This is orchestral playing at its finest.