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Stepping in, Pairing up at Symphony


Charles Dutoit conducts BSO (Stu Rosner photo)
Charles Dutoit conducts BSO (Stu Rosner photo)

Charles Dutoit stepped in last night for Lorin Maazel who had to bow out of this week’s series of concerts due to an accident (BMInt article here). Though Maazel’s appearance would be missed by many, Dutoit remains a favorite with Boston audiences. He and the Boston Symphony Orchestra kept to the scheduled program that included two symphonies: Mozart’s Prague and Mahler’s Fifth. How did they fare together? And having a well-established reputation for their interpretations of the French, how did this top seed orchestra and eminent Swiss conductor make out in Thursday’s unusual pairing?

As to the first question, the two symphonies paired well. The combination further highlighted the cultural and stylistic divide between the two works. Just over a century separates the two, Mozart’s dating from 1786 and Mahler’s from 1902. Sheer length and size, under a half hour compared to over an hour of music and the number of orchestral instruments more than doubled, is only the beginning of an assessment.

Was the Mahler the reason for going to symphony, or was it the Mozart, or both? (Mozart will not be performed at the Friday concert.) Unusual it is for the BSO, or, I suppose, for any performing organization, to present less than thirty minutes of music and then break for intermission. By the way, only one of several repeats in the Mozart was taken, that coming in the Rondo. Thoughtfully, the BSO pointed out concert’s end would be about 10:15, which was when rounds and rounds of clapping and cheering finally faded.

Symphony No. 38 in D, K504, “Prague” scores with pellucidity. With but three double basses—and for some reason a short row of upper strings behind them—a larger proportion of violins, violas, and cellos, along with brass and tympani cast a pall over tutti passages. The Prague’s pleasing pairing of woodwinds, flutes, oboes, and bassoons stood less in sunlight than they could have. More nuances in the melodic patterns of Mozart might have lifted shadows, though faint ones.  A finely tuned orchestra drew admiration. A higher, lighter spirit surfacing only from time to time would encourage then dash hopes of a completely affecting performance. More translucence would have further complemented the Mahler.

Symphony No. 5 openly brushes the canvas. The most affecting and best known movement of the Fifth (recall that Mahler’s five “movements” are to be thought of in three larger parts), the Adagietto, grew and grew under Dutoit. Departing from the gushing gestures we have come to love in perhaps Mahler’s most wrenching manifestation, Dutoit would have these melodic arcs conceding, surrendering ever so slowly yet surely, yearning virtually absent. The Adagietto communicated acceptance, an aura of serenity prevailing. The strings of the BSO transformed melody and harmony into splendiferous sound. Jessica Zhou’s harp arpeggios warmed as does a golden sunset.

The opening Funeral March surged forward with the cutting, biting intensity of Principal trumpeter Thomas Rolfs. Dutoit would embrace him more than once as ovations ratcheted up for his matchless playing. But such recognition verges on unfairness, given the display of power, affection, and virtuosity shown by the entire orchestra, which Dutoit recognized. The orchestra, together with Dutoit stepping in as he did Thursday night to do the Mahler, accomplished a feat that left few—if any—Mahlerites heading for a quick getaway.

I still do not understand the “Stormy” movement following the march that is to be played “with utmost vehemence.”  Its length and blare take on a life of its own. This performance did not shed any new light that might expose its raison d’être.

Both conductor and outsized orchestra energized the Scherzo as directed in Mahler’s score, and the Rondo-Finale, too, met the composer’s specifications with an immaculate interpretation at once giocoso and lively. The symphony’s super climactic finish lifted the house to its feet, breathless and ecstatic.

Charles Dutoit and the Boston Symphony make for quite the pair!

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.


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

  1. It’s good of Dr. Patterson to mention the repeats, and curious! At the Thursday rehearsal Dutoit played da capos in both the first and third movements of the Mozart.

    Comment by Martin Cohn — April 19, 2014 at 8:46 am

  2. The disparity between the two works in the program would not have been great if the repeats had not been cut in the first. The Prague Symphony is not particularly short, despite having only three movements, because the first is the longest symphonic movement Mozart ever wrote, longer, in fact, if it is played entire, than any of the movements of Mahler’s 5th. It is a pity to cut it, because it benefits from its length; it is expansive, inventive, full of novelty and character; it has been called an overture for an unwritten opera. It is also a contrapuntal tour-de-force that Mozart surpassed only in the last movement of his last symphony, with passages you really need to hear twice to believe.

    Of course playing the repeats would have added six or seven minutes of music to the evening and threatened that carefully-observed 10:15 finish. There is, however, another way of accomplishing that end, though I know it is unrealistic to propose it: they could start on time.

    Though it was over too quickly, I thought they played the Mozart very well on Saturday, and the Mahler was excellent, especially given the late substitution. For this credit is definitely due to the conductor, but especially to the orchestra, who can now be considered a very good Mahler orchestra. And for that that at least some of the credit must go to someone who was not present, James Levine.

    Comment by SamW — April 22, 2014 at 4:59 pm

  3. It was certainly interesting to see how well it all went.
    He missed a bit of the poetry in the Mozart, while relishing the bits that were more like Haydn. (Mackerras, I think, divided conductors into Bach/Haydn and Handel/Mozart types. I’m guessing that Dutoit would be the former.)
    And while the Mahler wasn’t especially idiomatic or revealing, he allowed the orchestra to play quite well.
    That’s one way to identify a real pro– measure how well he does something that isn’t his specialty, and that he didn’t choose to do in the first place.

    Comment by Camilli — April 22, 2014 at 7:53 pm

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