The gala conducted by Andris Nelsons last Saturday was rich in opera. On Wednesday, the new music director turned to conventional orchestra repertoire. There was no such singing in last night’s program, but there was a fair amount of riveting ballet, and it was not limited to Bartok’s Miraculous Mandarin.
Andris Nelsons is a conductor of endlessly fascinating moves. He seems to use all independent dimensions of movement: while the baton conveys extremely precise beat, the fingers of his left hand might provide directions to wood winds, while position and motion of his body may simultaneously be giving very explicit phrasing instructions. It was spellbinding to watch in the Allegro of Beethoven Eight’s: I can’t recall ever seeing and hearing an orchestra that was micromanaged to the same extent. It seemed to operate as a perfect automaton reflecting every nuance of the conductor’s body movement. The symphony appeared in front of our eyes as a ballet suite in its own right.
This would look great on video, but it looked even better live and was not to be missed. Nelsons doesn’t always seem to conduct with this degree of micromanagement. As a listener swept away by Nelsons interpretation of Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances last year, I certainly didn’t have the same impression of a total control when watching him conduct from the Concertgebouw podium seats. It may be that Rachmaninoff did not conjure this musical automaton, while Beethoven 8th with its elements of mechanical humor begged for it.
The symphony sounded fresh and energizing. In the Allegro, somewhat angular and mechanical movements of the conductor translated into lovely dynamic contrasts and elegant rhythmic lines. The menuetto was appropriately comical, while the horns and the clarinet in the Trio provided moments of the sublime with Martha Babcock’s cello adding charming spontaneity. The Finale was fun and driven without being rushed. Pure joy: the audience responded with laughter mixed with applause in equal measures.
Bartok’s Mandarin Suite is an orchestral tour-de-force to begin with, but as played by a great orchestra in the throes of a honeymoon with its new music director, it just carried the audience away. From mysterious to genuinely menacing, this was less a sequence of scenes than one uninterrupted and somewhat disturbing vision, as if filmed in a single cut.
As far as this listener is concerned, nothing tests a conductor’s collaboration with the orchestra as much as a Tchaikovsky Symphony. On the surface, it is an easy sell. The master of the 1812 Overture occupies a special place in the hearts of BSO audience—or at least in the hearts of the publishing staff who insist on always calling him Pyotr Ilyitch as if to prove that they are so ready to embrace his Russianness that they resort to a rather un-American form of addressing him by his patronymic.
Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique does call for some cross-cultural embracing. Generally, I have a hard time understanding how perfectly rational people can put up with it. The anguish that I can relate to in the Piano Trio or First String Quartet, becomes too much of a Dostoevsky style scandal when blown out of proportion in the much more public space of a Symphony.
At least I was prepared for some of its emotional demands: when listening to a heartbreakingly beautiful clarinet solo in the first movement played by William Hudgins, I knew that something nasty would follow. But many others in the audience must have been quite shocked when the fortissimo attack whacked them on the head. (A Chinese student in front of me started visibly).
After the lovely stumbling Waltz of the second movement, the bombastic march, a precursor to great many expressions of proletarian enthusiasm of the following century, and just as packed with forced optimism, brought the audience to the Lamentoso finale just in the shape that the composer would have wanted: overstimulated, slightly disturbed and ripe to undergo one of the most blatant heart-on-the-sleeve experiences in the repertoire. Usually such pressure doesn’t lead to a pure musical experience.
But in this case it just worked; it was intense, free of schmaltz, and moving. Chalk it up to the remarkable concentration by Nelsons in the Adagio and to the orchestra that follows his every intent.
Recently, while reviewing the latest “Anna Karenina” movie, the light travesty of Tolstoy’s novel starring Keira Knightley, Dmitry Bykov, one of the most gifted literary figures of modern Russia, came to a sad conclusion that such mockery of a great novel can only be explained one way. The western society just had enough of the Russian mystery wrapped in enigma. May be so, but the October 1st experience at BSO suggests that the music of the same paradigm is exempt, and there can be true rewards in it. Du holde Kunst!