in: Reviews

September 19, 2014

A Brazilian Goal Scores for the BSO Opener

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Nicole Cabell and Marcelo Lehninger (Hilary Scott photo)

Nicole Cabell and Marcelo Lehninger (Hilary Scott photo)

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.

Cashman Kerr Prince, trained in Classics and Comparative Literature, is now a Visiting Scholar in the Department of Classical Studies at Wellesley College.  He is also a cellist of some accomplishment, currently playing with the Brookline Symphony Orchestra.

9 Comments

  1. Although I enjoyed the concert overall, there were a couple of disappointments.

    At first, I was disappointed at Nicole Cabell’s voice, compared to Joan Baez’s in her recording of the first part of the piece. Baez ‘s voice was brighter and clearer. But Cabell’s is richer, and her musical training showed in her performance technique.

    In the Mozart, the third movement tempo seemed slightly slower than the performance we grew familiar with as closing theme music of “Morning Pro Musica.” In this case, I think faster was better.

    Beethoven’s Fifth is definitely better than his Fourth. It’s almost impossible not to enjoy it, and to be thrilled by the first and fourth movements, as I was. Like Mr. Prince, I appreciated hearing the inner voices at times. But I didn’t find the dynamics so well controlled. Except during the third movement, and in particular during the bridge to the fourth, it seemed to me that the contrast was between really loud and louder. When I got back to my car at Wonderland, the word that came to mind to describe the performance as a whole was “coarse.” This may apply more to the outer movements than the outer ones, but at any rate, it was disappointing.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — September 19, 2014 at 7:07 pm

  2. I’m sure I’m not the only woman of a certain age who grew up with Baez’s recording — still have it, still have a turntable, will listen as soon as the warm glow of Cabell’s performance fades. The whole evening was a wonderful kick-off to a promising season.

    Comment by jaylyn — September 20, 2014 at 8:52 am

  3. nor the only person

    Comment by David Moran — September 20, 2014 at 11:50 am

  4. What’s the story with Nelsons? Announcements on CRB had him conducting the opening concert, then without explanation it became Lehninger. The Intelligencer certainly, if not the Globe, should keep us informed of such things, no?

    Comment by clarkjohnsen — September 20, 2014 at 12:40 pm

  5. Clark, the season-opening schedule has not changed since it was originally announced: Andris Nelsons is leading the opening gala concert next Saturday night, as well as being present for the “Symphony Ball” gala this Tuesday evening. But he is leading complete Beethoven symphony cycles with his City of Birmingham Symphony in Bonn (last week) and Birmingham (this week). This out-of-town commitment, combined with the Jewish High Holidays, makes the first few weeks of the BSO season a bit complicated. But there’s no “story with Nelsons”—this was all planned well in advance—and it’s not “news.”

    Remember that when James Levine was the BSO’s Music Director, both the BSO and the Metropolitan Opera wanted him to lead their season openers. Andris Nelsons is still—for this season only—the Music Director of both the BSO and the CBSO, but this conflict won’t exist after the 2014–15 season.

    Comment by Stephen H. Owades — September 20, 2014 at 1:03 pm

  6. The concert broadcast on WCRB Sat night sounded, in toto, more nicely put together, baked, with a still-patchy maybe-Mozart (so familiar from FM sign-on/signoff, or something?); a gorgeously piercing V-L; and the Fifth, omg, omg, has there been a more propulsive rendition in SH ever? And that opening rhythm was quite superior to the norm. Wow, I want to hear this again; would never have thought I would feel that way about the Fifth.

    Comment by David Moran — September 20, 2014 at 10:02 pm

  7. I heard the Saturday night performance of this program and was blown away by Cabell’ performance. She was utterly “invested” in each phrase, each episode, of this piece that spans a wide range of expression and style. She had all the technical chops to deliver a soul-searing rendition of this unique composition. The cellists also acquitted themselves brilliantly. They seemed to be having a great time playing this singular work from their repertoire, whereby every note that each person plays matters – adding up to a propulsive, emotive and compelling whole.

    Comment by andrea bonsignore — September 21, 2014 at 9:52 pm

  8. >> and it’s not “news.” >>

    Never said it was, but thanks for the response. The fault evidently lay in CRB’s promos.

    clark

    Comment by clark johnsen — September 27, 2014 at 11:01 am

  9. I listened to the WCRB rebroadcast on Monday evening. Unfortunately I had other things to do while I listened. The Mozart still seemed to drag, but my divided attention didn’t perceive the coarseness of the season opener. Was it because they were better on Saturday, because the radio improves the sound, because my distraction hid the coarseness? I don’t know, but I liked the broadcast better than what I heard in the hall.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — October 1, 2014 at 1:51 pm

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