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Unorthodox Kavakos Leads and Plays


Leonida Kavakos plays Mozart at Symphony Hall (Stu Rosner photo)
Leonida Kavakos plays Mozart at Symphony Hall (Stu Rosner photo)

It’s bold to bring the violinist Leonidas Kavakos to Symphony Hall to conduct and solo with the BSO. His playing is smart and unorthodox and his conducting yields imperfect performances that nonetheless capture something beyond the sum of the notes. On Thursday night he led the first of four programs of Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 4 in D, Prokofiev’s “Classical” Symphony, and Schumann’s Symphony No. 2 in C.

He began the Mozart concerto with his back to the audience while playing along with the orchestral tutti. With the first solo entrance it became clear that this was an earthy interpretation of Mozart, a composer whose concertos are more typically rendered with gleaming elegance. Kavakos has a rich and grounded tone on the violin, which he approaches with a relaxed physicality and an unusual, almost draped, posture. The orchestra, on the other hand, was quite stiff as it provided a polite backdrop. Kavakos occasionally conducted from the violin but more often left the ensemble to fend for itself. More pushback and assured independence from the orchestral players would have helped the performance, but it nonetheless came off as an artistically sophisticated and unflashy interpretation. Kavakos’s first movement cadenza, a concise, beautiful thing, stood out as a moment to remember.

For the Prokofiev, Kavakos returned to the stage with a baton in hand. The symphony, in some ways, felt more prototypically “classical” than the interpretation of the Mozart that preceded it. Prokofiev’s colors were transparent and the rhetoric clearly delineated. The conductor drew exuberant moments from the orchestra in the first movement Allegro, crafted lucid lines and a chilling end to the Largo, and the Vivace flew by like an unspooling thread. The effect was so good that perhaps it is best not to dwell too much on how strange Kavakos looks on the podium. But in contrast to his relaxed violin technique, his conducting is puppet-like and physically awkward. At the start of the Prokofiev he swayed back and forth like a cross between a penguin and a pendulum metronome. Sometimes his signs are unusually literal—stooping low for low notes and raising his hands up high for high ones. But his gestures aren’t self-conscious exaggerations—this is how he communicates. And he drew a visceral energy from the ensemble.

After intermission, he led the orchestra in the Schumann. The sound overall was unusually string-heavy with an oddly disconnected blend between horns and strings at the opening of the first movement. This isn’t a perfectly composed symphony in the first place, and this performance was a bit ragged on top of that, but still the interpretation had great moments and was quite affecting in the big picture. As the first movement developed, the music grew more bracing and Kavakos had a way of drawing explosive playing from the ensemble at key points in the score. The Andante, perhaps, should have been more sculpted in its melodic phrasing and sometimes the pulse was slack, but the sections of contrapuntal string writing were beautifully rendered. The finale emerged warmly and had a rousing ending helped by the timpani.

It seems that the BSO is quite open to letting unusual musicians pull double duty as conductor. In 2011 Anne-Sophie Mutter gave the Gala Opening Night performance as violinist and conductor, Kavakos made one previous appearance on a similar program in 2012, and composer-conductors Oliver Knussen and Thomas Adès have both made recent appearances. It’s valuable to sometimes open the podium to musicians outside the full-time maestro set for a greater diversity of vision. Under Kavakos’s baton, the BSO sounded a little more rough-hewn than usual, but perfection in the notes isn’t the highest good in music anyhow. This concert felt like it came from the hands of an artist seeking something different.

See related interview here.

Benjamin Pesetsky is a Cambridge-based composer who’s recently been in residence at the Banff Centre and the Hambidge Center. Before that he attended Bard College where he studied with Joan Tower and George Tsontakis and earned a B.M. in composition and a B.A. in philosophy.


14 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. Not being intimately enough familiar with any of the pieces to tell what was rough-hewn, I can only say that I was delighted to hear an evening of fine music at Symphony Hall on Thursday. On second thought maybe “rough-hewn” is the way to describe the unusual overall feel of the Schumann.

    As noted, the first movement cadenza in the Mozart was excellent. Actually, I liked all three because they stayed within character for a Mozart concerto — not descending into the vulgar, flashy display pieces which lesser musicians with bigger names sometimes use to try to show us how technically adept they are.

    I also liked the fact that Kavakos kept the dynamics under control. He didn’t have to blast us out of our seats. And under his direction, the horns didn’t drown out the rest of the orchestra. (Love you guys, your playing is beautiful,but you are frequently louder than you need to be.) There seemed to be excellent balance. It speaks very well for the professionalism of the BSO that they let him get away with it.

    Yes, this was a very refreshing concert.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — November 15, 2013 at 8:21 pm

  2. The fascinating interview that Lee Eiseman did with Kavakos ( goes a long way toward explaining his approach to both playing and conducting. Thursday’s concert concert was exhilarating, in large part because Kavakos had something new that he wanted to tell us about all of these pieces, and it was worth listening to. It’s so rare to hear real musicianship that it’s both a shock and a delight when you encounter it. I hope we see and hear more of him in the coming years. I have the feeling that he’s got much more to tell us.

    Comment by Leon Golub — November 15, 2013 at 8:43 pm

  3. We were at the Thursday night concert. I thought it was a pretty mixed bag, with a memorable performance of the Schumann, a good performance of the Prokofiev, and a performance of the Mozart that was just lousy (and I’ll admit, I’m not the biggest Mozart fan).

    The Mozart came first, and to these ears, it’s a trite and irrelevant piece of music. But I would probably say that about a lot of Mozart’s music, so perhaps I’m not the right person to be commenting on it. But I will say this–it was inexcusable that Kavakos played out of tune. I kept saying to myself, doesn’t he HEAR himself? It was jarring at times, when he would play a note and then someone in the orchestra would come in on the same note, except that it wasn’t the same note. I thought the orchestra played as if they were asleep and didn’t care. It reminded me, honestly, of the worst of Seiji’s days.

    I enjoyed the Prokofiev, but to my ears, it just felt like something was missing. If I knew the piece better maybe I could say. I enjoyed it enough, but my best guess is that in another conductor’s hands, it might sound a whole lot different.

    The Schumann, on the other hand, was magnificent. Even with the imperfections in the orchestra’s playing (and as others have noted, there were more than a few–it was not one of their better nights), the performance was stunning. I heard things in the music that I had never heard before. Kavakos had a lot of interesting ideas, and many (thought not all) of them worked. It felt at times revelatory, especially in the first movement. Maybe the 3rd movement didn’t plumb the depths as much as I’ve heard, but it all worked.

    Sadly, however, what I got out of the orchestra is that they don’t care for Kavakos the conductor. Their body language sure suggested it. They seemed somewhat disengaged, and I saw a few examples where Kavakos was gesturing for softness and they ignored him. In fact, it seemed like the volume varied only within a much narrower range than would have occured for, let’s say, Bernard Haitink. If you’re accustomed to reading how the orchestra responds to a conductor, what I saw and heard suggested that Kavakos is far from one of their favorites.

    Still, because of the excellent Schumann (and I’d say the best performance of the symphony I’ve heard live, alongside performances by Sinopoli, von Dohnanyi, and I think Levine), this concert goes down in my books as a good one.

    Comment by Mogulmeister — November 15, 2013 at 9:10 pm

  4. The Mozart and Prokofiev performances, as heard via Wcrb Saturday night, were fresh and refreshing interpretations. The man has something to say.

    Comment by Joel Cohen — November 17, 2013 at 4:00 am

  5. Cross posting : A mixed bag from reviewers : from insightful, dreamy and refreshing to clumsy and disoriented. A standing ovation and three encores on Thursday night, reports one. Can the Symphony Hall audience be trusted?

    Comment by Jasmine White — November 17, 2013 at 9:31 am

  6. What Cohen said. I also found the Schumann’s segmented, highly and deliberately varied qualities to be (to use the tiredest of reviewer adjectives) extremely interesting.

    Comment by David Moran — November 17, 2013 at 10:56 am

  7. A repeat of some of my posting under the pre-performance article on Kavakos, for those who may have missed it; I invite interest in Hamelin doing more in Boston:
    The [Thurs. night] performance … reminded me of the thrill of hearing Oistrakh back in the Dark Ages, when the music world was astonished at his ease at playing with such sweet, clear pitch and such emotive bowing… given to us last night in Kavakos. … What a player! And I loved the Prokofiev interpretation – with those wonderful suspenseful pauses. And all those subordinate melodies were noticed, without overplaying their parts.

    Was I hearing correctly that one horn slightly botched the opening of the Schumann?

    We heard Hamelin play the Szymanowski Symphony #4 in Berlin two years ago and would do anything to further any performance by him of anything by this composer here in Boston. Petition, anyone?

    Comment by Bettina A. Norton — November 17, 2013 at 11:57 am

  8. “Sadly, however, what I got out of the orchestra is that they don’t care for Kavakos the conductor. Their body language sure suggested it…If you’re accustomed to reading how the orchestra responds to a conductor, what I saw and heard suggested that Kavakos is far from one of their favorites.”

    Strange, on Friday afternoon their performance, engagement, body language, broad smiles and enthusiastic bow-waving for Kavakos gave every indication they were thoroughly on board with his fascinating, novel approach. All three works had moments of greatness, too, if not consistently so.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if Kavakos receives many more invitations in years to come.

    Comment by nimitta — November 17, 2013 at 12:03 pm

  9. Concurring with mimitta about Friday’s concert — in which intonation and dynamics were flawless — one wonders whether miracles ensued late Thursday night or whether the negative comment was unfounded.

    Comment by Martin Cohn — November 17, 2013 at 1:08 pm

  10. What Nimitta says of the Friday performance describes what I, for one, heard and saw Thursday night. There seemed to be a very natural, even intimate warmth between Kavakos and the orchestra. And “all three works had moments of greatness.” It was a very thrilling and refreshing concert, with moments of great beauty and moments of unexpected insight. It felt so good to be far, far away from a certain kind of deadening “professionalism.” I’m amused by Benjamin Petetsky’s emphasis on Kavakos’s “look”. Paganini, too, was an ectomorph. There’s a special endearing charisma to the body language of artists who are ectomorphs – or so at least the rest of us tend to feel.

    Comment by Ashley — November 17, 2013 at 3:28 pm

  11. I really enjoyed this concert, if it wasn’t clear from the review, and it’s been on my mind through the weekend. I don’t think what different people have written about it is necessarily inconsistent. It was an insightful, dreamy, but also clumsy and imperfect performance. It was a very textured experience.

    Mogulmeister: it was a bit too subjective a perception to put in the review, but I agree it looked like the orchestra players were not enthusiastic about Kavakos.

    Also, I left with the crowd, and I’m pretty sure there weren’t three encores on Thursday unless he did them after half the audience departed. And the standing ovation looked like your regular patchwork ovation, not something particularly special.

    Comment by Benjamin Pesetsky — November 17, 2013 at 3:33 pm

  12. I wonder if the person who said there were encores actually meant that Kavakos got three “curtain calls,” i.e., returned thrice for bows. Certainly there were no encores before I left, which was after the applause had ended.

    Bettina Norton — not only was there a little mistake in the horns, I also noticed what sounded like a wrong note from the flutes. But things like that aren’t important if they don’t become habitual.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — November 17, 2013 at 10:45 pm

  13. First, I thought that the Friday concert was fine all through. I thoroughly enjoyed each performance. What a clearly articulated, perfectly played performance of the Prokofiev. The Schumann was convincing, and it was a joy to hear. I had no hesitation in joining the majority (as far as I could tell)of the house in standing for the orchestra and conductor.
    But what I’m particularly happy about is the run of conductors this year who split the violins in performance. It really allows for a finer appreciation of the nuances of a work’s orchestration and structure. Bravo, Maestro Kavakos, for continuing this practice.
    (Also, although in the past Kavakos has performed an encore after he has soloed in a concerted work, he didn’t do it this time, at least not on Friday. As others have mentioned, though, he was called back a number of times. And it seemed to me that the orchestra enjoyed playing with/for him as well.)

    Comment by edente — November 18, 2013 at 8:15 pm

  14. I’ve just now had a chance to listen to the recorded broadcast of the Kavakos-led concert, after first listening to his radio interview. The music, indeed, seemed to “sparkle” as he described. That Prokofiev was simply joyous. The BSO sounded as if they were enjoying making music with Mr Kavakos and the audience applause seemed sincerely appreciative. Finally, what a sound he makes out of his Strad!! Makes me wish I was there.

    Comment by Jasmine White — November 23, 2013 at 5:53 pm

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