Last night Marcelo Lehninger led the Boston Symphony Orchestra in Mozart, Villa-Lobos, and Beethoven for the opening night of the 134th season concert, leaving the audience and this writer enthused and excited for things to come.
Sinfonia Concertante in E-flat Major for oboe, clarinet, horn, and bassoon was the opener. Discovered in the mid-19th century, this music is attributed to Mozart (as K.297b) by some, while deemed spurious by others (who catalogue it as Anh. C. 14.01). In three movements (Allegro—Adagio—Andantino con variazioni), it opens like a concerto with an orchestral introduction, followed by the quartet of soloists taking the helm; the exposition then offers each of the foursome more individual roles. Chamber music alternates with orchestral. The orchestration is at times a challenge, with some lines less distinct than others. First performed by the BSO in 1955 this work last graced Symphony Hall in 1988. Here it was a chance for musicians of the orchestra to shine: John Ferrillo (oboe), William R. Hudgins (clarinet), James Sommerville (horn), and Richard Svoboda (bassoon). The soloists played with a shared phrasing and coherence of ensemble and musical shape clearly reflecting their years of experience performing with one another. Ferrillo played with verve throughout, and Sommerville amply demonstrated the color and tonal variations available to a master. Hudgins hastily dispatched the tricky clarinet passages with delightful ease breathing life into the notes. Especially in the Adagio, Svoboda’s performance positively shone with warmth of tone and elegance of phrasing.
As soon as stage hands managed to push chairs to the side (I wish they had actually cleared the stage), cellists from the BSO took pride of place along with soprano Nicole Cabell for Heitor Villa-Lobos’s two-movement Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5. “Aria (Cantilena)” was composed in 1938 and premiered by Ruth Valdares Corrêa (who also wrote the words) in Rio de Janeiro in 1939; “Dança (Martelo)” was added later (lyrics by Manoel Bandeira) and the complete work was performed in Paris in 1947 with Hilda Ohlin singing. This is one of a number of works where Villa-Lobos combines his European training with his Brazilian roots; it also represents the union of his personal trinity of Bach, Brasil, and cello. Perhaps better known to local audiences through the recordings made by Bidu Sayão and Victoria de los Ángeles (both with the composer conducting), this work “for soprano and orchestra of cellos” is for the first time played by the BSO. I have loved this music for years so am thrilled it is programmed this season, and hopefully we shall soon hear more of his work whether conducted by Lehninger (who seems to be Boston’s champion of Villa-Lobos) or others. For this performance, Nicole Cabell brought a richness and depth to the vocal part which captures the quintessentially Brazilian saudade suffusing the lyrics and music. I did not hear the ebullience of Sayão nor the brightness of de los Ángeles but an achingly beautiful reading. I hope Cabell records this so more can hear it. In the orchestra cellists she found worthy collaborators as the instrumental voices soared and dived, as nuanced sound and subtly propulsive rhythm ennobled the performance. Jules Eskin played the cello 1 with Martha Babcock on cello 2. I once heard an audio interview, I think on an older version of the BSO website, where Babcock described Eskin as having “nerves of steel”; after 50 years as Principal Cello here, that remains true (and Babcock could as easily have been describing herself or any of the others on stage). This was a magical performance and for me the highlight of the evening.
Following intermission the full orchestra returned with Lehninger for Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, op. 67. The impassioned reading with effectively balanced parts brought out the inner voices, most especially in the Allegro con brio exposition and throughout the Andante con moto. Dynamic contrasts were deployed here to great effect and the use of rubato was judicious and intelligent, as Lehninger and the BSO delivered fresh excitement and passion.