The BSO’s first performance of the symphonic poem The Noonday Witch kicked off a resplendent all-Dvořák program Friday night (and the season). The Violin Concerto lit up the night sky in Anne-Sophie Mutter’s glittering interpretation under Andris Nelsons’s playful and energetic baton. Symphony No. 8, with its captivating finale, had the audience jumping to its feet for music that, like Brahms, is in the DNA of the BSO, which accounts for such a compelling and masterful evening.
Nelsons seems to have this music in his blood too. Other conductors can convey a convincing reading, but it became evident that conductor, orchestra and soloist were having a youthful love affair. I sat closely enough to witness a relationship between and among the musicians that was deeply connected and full of life. Nelsons is not as much directing and imposing his will on the performers, but eliciting, almost in democratic fashion, the inner soul and beauty of the music. His sometimes comical and unexpected gestures would reveal layers of both nuance and excitement that the orchestra gleefully and energetically uttered. Mutter was only too happy to be part of this affair, singing the Concerto more than playing it.
Folklorists and historians would likely be able to describe the context and cultural meaning of the creepy and rather tragic child’s tale that served as the program for The Noonday Witch. In some ways the story reminded me of the Erlking except that the witch appears as a result of a mother’s exasperation with her child’s rebelliousness, and ensuing maternal threats and all too real invocation. In an attempt to protect her son, she unwittingly smothers him, which is discovered moments later by the father. Dvořák is concerned more with the dramatic import of the ballad than any moral of the story. The witch’s stealthy entrance, painted by sinister low woodwinds under tremolando cellos and basses, was eerie, effectively contrasting the raucous jollity of the boy’s mischief. Emotional ambiguity closes this symphonic poem, vacillating between major and minor, ending in an open fifth. (Little doubt Walt Disney would have created a brilliant animation had he been familiar with it.) There are three additional symphonic poems that Dvořák set c. 1896 based on poems penned by Czech poet Karel Jaromír Erben that I’m now eager to get to know.
Making a confident runway entrance to the cheers of an expectant full house, Anne-Sophie Mutter was bedecked in an emerald-green strapless gown. Dvořák’s Violin Concerto, the centerpiece of the concert, is unfortunately not often performed, reputedly owing to its difficulty. But with Mutter’s technical prowess matching the composer’s demands, she convinced us otherwise with her ease and breathtaking sweeps of lyricism and vitality.
Audiences familiar with Brahms’s Violin Concerto will notice his influence, and even that of his violinist, Joseph Joachim, with whom Dvořák had extensive collaborations. Warmly melodic themes, woodwind cantilenas and musical material “ripe for elaboration” (Marc Mandel’s note) constitute the Czech composer’s trademark, but in this piece Dvořák abandons 19th-century formal structures, such as an orchestral exposition. The soloist enters almost immediately and proceeds to a cadenza-like display of virtuosity. Later the violin duetted the second major theme with John Ferrillo’s sensitive oboe, contrasting the dramatic horn calls. The second movement is a luscious adagio built of grand melodic expanses. Dvořák’s language here is not harmonically predictable, taking the listener to unexpected places. He exploits his penchant for folk dance, incorporating dumkas, bagpipe imitations, cross-rhythms and offbeat accents in the rondo finale. An unexpected crescendo accelerando marks the end of the movement, by which time the audience realizes that it’s on its feet. Such an experience demonstrates that this concerto deserves to be ranked more highly.
Dvořák’s well-earned confidence after completing the Violin Concerto and other orchestral and chamber works left him wanting to tackle an eighth symphony and to explore new ways of working musical ideas and forms without losing sight of his own and the larger symphonic tradition. We are closer to that tradition than one might think: the BSO performed the American premiere of Symphony No. 8, in 1892, and also as recently as 2010. Nelsons takes it a step further. Where some conductors see their role as serious and quasi-priestly, Nelsons is of the new breed that relishes collaborative musicmaking. He seemed almost giddy to arrive at this point in the program, as if to say, “Let’s go, this is going to be great!”
The melody of the introduction begins in minor, yet returns several times during the movement altered into various guises. Melodic and harmonic interest are enough to sustain interest, but then Dvořák’s orchestral color and the cohesiveness of the shapes exalts. The Adagio evokes Beethoven’s Eroica funeral march, especially as a triumphal section begins to surface. The Allegretto grazioso, an unhurried dance, makes use of trio material from one of the composer’s comic operas. Michael Steinberg’s program note unhesitatingly states, “After this strong taste of national flavor, Dvořák becomes more Czech than ever in the finale,” and, I would add, so did conductor and orchestra. One of the movement’s variations featured the magic of principal flutist Elizabeth Rowe, and another James Somerville’s high-wire horn trills.
High technology was not far behind the high wire: the orchestra test-drove an interactive wifi experience to subscribed lawn audience devices. Welcome all, millennials and veterans alike!