IN: Reviews

Spano, BSO, Rachmaninoff Thrill


Wholly attuned to a lesser known work of Rachmaninoff, guest conductor Robert Spano and the Boston Symphony Orchestra redeemed an otherwise peculiar evening by having us once again believing in why we love going to the symphony. Spine tingling climaxes, evocative melodies, and displays of orchestral acumen would draw wholehearted response from the concert-goers, many of whom ended standing—and lit up with smiles.

Unfortunately, the first half of the Thursday night concert cast Debussy somewhat out of nature and ceremony with his three Nocturnes (short one) and with the concert coming to a musical standstill in order to seat late-comers. Then there was coughing during Nuages. Ironically, for this first nocturne of Claude Debussy, Robert Spano drafted softer and softer sounds from the orchestra with the result of creating frostier, more distant clouds than usually imagined (further amplifying the distractions)

Again, it was unfortunate that the orchestra had to warm up (practice?) until just before the start of the concert. On the positive side, breathtaking mist from a highly subdued tympani lent to the sheer beauty of an appreciated sonic coolness. The brief English horn solos, momentarily a tad edgy, turned almost immediately, via a sumptuously summoning vibrato, to the only noticeable warmth in this iteration of Nuages.

Known for its flair for the French, the BSO expectedly celebrated the second nocturne, Fêtes, with tonal exquisiteness and formal exactness. There was excitement, too.  The early brass fanfare of this festive impressionism would become the moment of the first half of the program. The downside: coming just before the festivities gradually begin to evaporate into a memory as the piece ends, the climax came up short. Overall, Spano recruited more of a marching, parading feel than usually imagined.

“Come with open ears and hearts… give all music a chance,” Bernard Rands instructs us in a YouTube video [here]. The generous applause given the world premiere of his near thirty-minute piano concerto could very well be interpreted as an acceptance of the composer’s thoughtful invitation. Yet, it is understandable that the NEC piano student whose sotto voce “disappointing” I overheard, found this BSO commission to be disappointing, largely, I assume, on account of the piano’s lesser role delimited by the far larger, far more audacious role of the orchestra.

Rands’ Concerto for Piano and Orchestra was something like standing atop the Empire State Building peering down into a cavernous block in a teeming metropolis. Events of the concerto resembled lines of multicolored vehicles bumper to bumper, changing traffic lights, and flocks of pedestrians waiting, walking, and rushing. Horns, too. Experiencing such a commute for the better part of a half-hour resulted in a kind of “staring at” state of mind.

Piano soloist Jonathan Biss showed complete control and grasp of the piano’s role, though he too often appeared to be relegated more to the rank of an orchestral pianist than soloist. The BSO also played its role superbly, coming to terms with Rands’ overly dramatic writing. The rarefied piano and plush score, in the end, fell victim to the perception of an unchanging underlying tempo.

For the second half, conductor and orchestra turned the last half of what was, up to that point, a strange outing, into an absolutely worthwhile and gratifying trip to Symphony Hall.

Rachmaninoff’s three Symphonic Dances, opus 45, redolent of his Russian homeland and equally aware of the changing times during which they were composed, found great empathy and responsiveness at the hands of Spano and the BSO. Their performance of this work, one surely unfamiliar to some, thrilled and thrilled over and again. The Russian’s 1940 fantasies (as he originally thought of these pieces) shot me back to my own earliest experiences, which would hook me on symphonic music for the rest of my life.

Robert Spano leads the BSO and Jonathan BIss (Stu Rosner photo)
Robert Spano leads the BSO and Jonathan Biss (Stu Rosner photo)

David Patterson, Professor of Music and former chairman of the Performing Arts Department at UMass Boston, was recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Award and the Chancellor’s Distinction in Teaching Award. He studied with Nadia Boulanger and Olivier Messiaen in Paris and holds a PhD from Harvard University.

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  1. I suppose it is understandable that if one comes to a piece for the first time with strong preconceptions of what it “should” be, then there is a real possibility that one will be disappointed when the composer hasn’t written what he “should have.”

    When I read somewhere that Rands called his piece “Concerto for Piano and Orchestra” rather than “Piano Concerto,” in order to emphasize that the orchestra wasn’t second fiddle, I thought it was kind of silly. After all, every piano concerto has an orchestra. It’s not a concerto without the orchestra. But now it makes sense. He’s trying to address the potential disappointment of listeners who expect more piano and less orchestra and instead find “the piano’s lesser role delimited by the far larger, far more audacious role of the orchestra.”

    Being disappointed when hopes and expectations are unmet is perfectly natural and understandable. But, as one who didn’t come to the piece with expectations of a different apportioning of roles between soloist and ensemble, I found the work to be worth listening to, as did others with whom I spoke about it. Indeed, it struck me as a piece which could well enter the standard repertory because of its accessibility and its potential to appeal to general audiences. I was not disappointed.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — April 6, 2014 at 7:32 pm

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