Leonidas Kavakos, the violinist, and now increasingly the conductor, heralded the holiday season for the BSO this Tuesday by exposing the lovelorn soul of the young Bartok, asking Papa Haydn to bring on the bears, and then calling on Mussorgsky (assisted by Ravel) to get us ready for feasting and the Pops. It was a stimulating, complicated, and all-in-all, highly satisfying musical meal that I’m reviewing with no small degree of ambivalence.
Bartok composed his two Portraits, Op 5, in 1907-1908, at a time when the young man was smitten by the violinist, Stefi Geyer, a star student of Hubay who, still in her teens, was both beautiful and, as they say, hard to get for the 27 year-old composer. The first Portrait is also the first movement of the first of Bartok’s two violin concerti, a work that languished hidden in a desk drawer until after the composer’s death. It appeared a few years after its composition, accompanied by a second one, a short and violent outburst commemorating the wreckage of Bartok’s short, but passionate infatuation. While the first Portrait is marked “Idealistic,” the second, only two minutes in duration, earned the composer’s label, “Grotesque,” and in this one the solo violin that soars within the first is fully and finally banished. Bartok’s heart was broken (although he apparently got over his dismay quickly, marrying his first of two teenage wives shortly thereafter, with that marriage coming after a relationship of a few short days).
The markings fit just fine. The first Portrait is a lyrical reverie, with the violin moving back and forth from the bottom of the G-string to the highest level of its register in almost a single, long line, interrupted only when an English horn steps in and comments briefly on the pensive mood. History biases the listener, but it’s easy to hear this as a long, keening call for love, and at the end, there’s introspection and apparent resolution, ushered in by a harp. Then all hell breaks loose. The violin (presumably, Geyer) is dismissed, and the orchestra roars in a galumphing, bizarre waltz, with growling bass, percussion pounding away, and winds shrieking. It leaves the listener both shaken and amused.
It’s a jewel of a work, and Kavakos made the most of it. It’s played differently by great fiddlers. Szigeti, an intimate of Bartok, brings out a jagged inner pulse with subtle but strong inflections that presage the rhythmic and tonal complexity Bartok would come to later. In contrast, Kremer and Chung focus on spinning a long line, and that’s the course Kavakos adopted. He did so magically, partnering with a magnificent Strad that has a remarkable range: A cavernous, slightly woody, low end, and a glittery top, with middle strings that somehow conspire to make the violin sound entirely even from bottom to top. He played it as if he had Geyer’s portrait in his eye; Bartok would have been thrilled.
But then the violin was banished to a nearby, padded chair, and his arms were free to lead the orchestra at full throttle. I suppose from the theatrical point of view it would have been fitting for Kavakos to toss the fiddle on the floor and stamp on it, but as he contemplates whether his future will be principally as a violinist or a conductor, I’m glad the violin still has a chance. At any rate, the orchestra cavorted and enjoyed itself, and there were smiles all around as the Portraits left center stage after being viewed for the first time at a BSO concert.
Haydn’s Symphony No. 82 in C Major, is nicknamed “The Bear,” a label that appeared in print in the early 1800s, well after its composition in 1786 as one of the six “Paris” symphonies for which he received a princely fee. You get the feeling that he worked dutifully at the first three movements, but his muse took hold primarily in the last movement, which earned the work its label in recognition of his humor and delight with folklore that takes over the symphony. The first movement is rousing but a bit monotonous as the strings and the winds whale away at some of Haydn’s less memorable melodies, and there’s not much contrast. The second has some fun, varying from major to the minor and offering the strings more opportunity to sing. The third, a minuet, has little out of the ordinary to say. But the final movement zigs and zags, with basses galumphing and timpani having a blast, all while charming melodies dance above.
Kavakos and the BSO sounded as if most of the rehearsal time had gone into the last movement. Before then, the upper strings were a bit dry and strident, perhaps trying to show off to their leader, and rhythms were somewhat metronomic, with the symphony rattling on and affording the audience little time to breathe. While the ensemble was precise and the notes were there, it wasn’t uplifting. But there were moments. The terrific second violin section showed how well they could play a rapid spiccato line together, and the woodwinds enlivened the middle movements. In contrast, the last movement was fine. Haydn almost inevitably evokes smiles somewhere along a given work, whether chamber or for full orchestra, and Kavakos and his colleagues upheld the tradition masterfully. Nuanced, dancing, humor-filled, the bear cavorted until intermission arrived, accompanied by warm applause and an audience eager to hear how Mussorgsky would fare.
Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition did just fine, thanks to Ravel’s extraordinary orchestration, the orchestra’s long love affair with the work, superb leadership by Kavakos, and Symphony Hall’s matchless acoustics. Koussevitsky brought Ravel’s orchestration to America and BSO in 1924 and was quite possessive of it thereafter, as we learned from the facsimile of the first performance and the inimitable program notes by Michael Steinberg (This was my first visit with the BSO this year. Hats off for the program we were handed: chock full of information about performance histories, including two facsimiles documenting the first BSO appearances of Bears and Pictures, and terrific notes by multiple authors).
No need to describe this music yet again. It was played joyously and triumphantly; the audience leaped to its feet at the end. Kavakos demonstrated a clear stick, hair-trigger reflexes, and a vibrant pulse. His frequent stints as a soloist seeking support from an orchestra seemed to shape his approach. He gave most attention to the inner, accompanying voices, inviting the various soloists to take off and do their thing. Quite literally at times, they had a blast. The brass weren’t note perfect, but that didn’t matter a bit. They were enthralling, each with an individual voice seeming to riff on Ravel. The percussion both kept the pulse and performed as soloists, quite a trick. It was an absolutely riveting performance. What an orchestra, and here comes my ambivalence: Quite a conductor!
Many superb instrumentalists seem almost inexorably to lust after conducting, but I usually end up wishing they’d stuck to their instruments. Moreover, when they do return, the skills have often atrophied. Menuhin, Casals, and Oundjian had to leave their strings behind when their bodies let them down, but Rostropovich and Ashkenazy turned to conducting while in their prime, and I doubt they’ll be best remembered as conductors. To be sure, many of the pre-eminent conductors were exceedingly fine players: Szell, Bernstein, Levine, Ormandy, and Maazel are just a few examples. But none were among the elite, and Kavakos certainly is. He’s apparently good at everything. He’s an outstanding soloist and recitalist, and he’s a fine chamber musician. And he can conduct. But he doesn’t have his own band to shape and mold, and guest gigs can go just so far, so you can’t really judge whether he’d become one of the standouts. While Barenboim may be the prime exception to the rule, from what he demonstrates already, Kavakos has the makings to become another.
For that he’s also got a special advantage: He clearly was both leading the BSO and conducting a love affair. The smiles before and after the concert were everywhere. Backstage, Yo-Yo Ma was hugging him, and as the players passed by, hurrying home to prepare the Thanksgiving fixings, several stopped to offer a further hug. A diffident, modest man who doesn’t play “Le Grand Artiste,” he’s a huge talent. I wonder when he’ll focus on composing…