in: Reviews

August 8, 2015

Kavakos and Dutoit Front at Tanglewood


Leonidas Kavakos (file photo)

Leonidas Kavakos (file photo)

The always stylish Charles Dutoit leads the BSO in a pair of Shed concerts at this weekend: Moderns on Friday night (Ravel, Sibelius, Stravinsky) and Romantics on Sunday afternoon (Mussorgsky, Glazunov, Berlioz).

The first half of Friday’s program contrasted a generally hushed, delicate Mother Goose Suite with the Sibelius Violin ConcertoWhere Ravel revels in kaleidoscopic varieties of solos for the woodwind choir, Sibelius explores the lowest ranges of the strings, juxtaposing chorale-like melodies and brass choir writing with devilishly difficult virtuoso writing for the soloist. As a youthful violinist, Sibelius hoped to become a concert soloist, and his work lunges between Beethoven-like cantilena melody in the second movement and a quickly shifting series of arpeggios, parallel sixths and octaves, flourishes, and cadenzas.

Soloist Leonidas Kavakos [excellent BMInt interview here] is becoming well-known to BSO audiences through his chamber work (performing last night in Ozawa Hall with Emmanuel Ax and Yo-yo Ma) and his now-annual appearances in Boston as soloist and conductor for BSO subscription program [reviewed here and here]. Although usually framed by a halo of strings, Kavakos choose a variety of commanding, growling timbres, featuring the lower, throaty range of his 1724 “Abergavenny” Stradivarius. By turns muscular and lyrical, his playing was reminiscent of his Gramophone Award-winning recording contrasting this version and the original (longer) version of Sibelius’s Violin Concerto, the first complete recording of that work [here].

Three curtain calls later, he returned for an encore: the delicate and tastefully ornamented Gavotte and Rondeau from Bach’s Violin Partita No. 3 in E Major, BWV 1006 (sometimes called the Sonata No. 6 for unaccompanied violin).

Notable string soloists from the BSO included Associate Concertmaster Tamara Smirnova, acting as concertmistress for the evening, and Principal Bass Edwin Barker, who anchored the more transparently scored sections in the Sibelius with a warm, incisive tone. Piccolo Cynthia Myers and contrabassoon Gregg Henegar provided dramatic touches of pathos and comedy in the Ravel and Sibelius.

Noted for his elegant control at the podium, Dutoit showed a complete mastery of the many-layered and heftier 1911 (original) version of Petrushka, while encouraging a heavier, darker sound from the strings in the first and last tableaux. Petrushka opens with a festive fair in St. Petersburg’s Admiralty Square, a kaleidoscopic panorama of musicians, soldiers, competing street ballerinas, a magician playing a flute, a street musician accompanying his bear on the hurdy-gurdy, and three puppets—Petrushka, a ballerina, and the Moor. Stravinsky shifts focus and shuffles events like a modern filmmaker: musical passages are cut and spliced, rhythmic patterns overlap and fade in and out.

The strings and “hurdy-gurdy” (clarinets in octaves, celesta, and orchestral bells) carried most of the borrowed Russian folk tunes, giving a particularly animated interpretation of the little French music-hall tune “Elle avait un’ jambe en bois,” which would have been recognizable to the opening night Parisian audience a century ago.

The paired clarinets’ bitonal theme in C and F-sharp (Petrushka locked in his room in the second tableau), was much more muted than I’ve ever heard, giving the scene a more intimate, surrealistic quality. The cascading, frantic arpeggios in this scene were the first part of the score composed (even before most of The Rite of Spring); Stravinsky called them “diabolical” and Diaghilev “exasperating.”

Charles Dutoit conducts BSO (Stu Rosner photo)

Charles Dutoit conducts BSO (Stu Rosner photo)

Principal trumpet Thomas Rolfe’s fluid, lyrical interpretation of the ballerina’s jaunty theme from the third tableau was elegant and whimsical, perfectly easing in and out of the melody he shared with the flute. This tableau looks easy on the page, but combines disparate musical material and a lot of musical (and choreographed) pushing and shoving: after the ballerina enters, she is grabbed by the Moor and a waltz ensues, but not one composed by Stravinsky. The tunes combine two early Viennese waltzes by Joseph Lanner (1801-1843), a friend of Johann Strauss, Sr., and in turn, these were based on folk dance tunes from Styria.

Craig Nordstrom’s many gorgeous bass clarinet solos (one of the magician’s themes, foreshadowing the “oldest man in the world in The Rite of Spring), darkened the tone of the finale, which disappears quietly into the night.

Ed. Note: This review edited in response to comment.

A longtime advocate of new music, Prichard is a regular pre-opera speaker for the San Francisco Opera and Boston Baroque. She has taught courses on music and theater history at Northeastern University and UMass-Lowell.


  1. Interesting review, but I’m surprised that the Sibelius Violin Concerto is described as “seldom-heard.” But then again, in a review of one of last weekend’s concert, there was a mention of the “famous Passacaglia from Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk!” Famous? Really? (Ed. Note: “seldom heard” term eliminated)

    Comment by George Hungerford — August 8, 2015 at 3:13 pm

  2. Thanks for your comment. Its true that the BSO performed the Sibelius last Fall and several American orchestras (NYPhil, National Symphony, Seattle & Cleveland) performed it this Winter/Spring, but those were mostly special concerts honoring the 150th anniversary celebrations of his birthday this year. I hope to see it performed more often in the future.

    If you’re looking for more Sibelius events and news, there’s a great new website:
    & an upcoming scholarly conference in Oxford, England with many papers on Sibelius and his music:
    & the whole 2011 Bard summer music festival was focused on him, with the papers already published:

    Comment by Laura Prichard — August 8, 2015 at 5:23 pm

  3. After edit, Sibelius VC no longer a rarity.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — August 8, 2015 at 6:09 pm

  4. “Henry” the BSO’s performance database, lists 19 performances of the Sibelius since July of 2005.
    Carl Nielsen, who ALSO had a 150th anniversary last year, also wrote a fabulous Violin Concerto.
    It has never been performed by the Boston Symphony.

    Comment by Brian Bell — August 9, 2015 at 1:28 pm

  5. And don’t forget Alexander Glazunov – same birthday year, and whose violin concerto has only been performed once by the BSO since the 1940s…

    Comment by Laura Prichard — August 9, 2015 at 7:51 pm

  6. Re Brian’s comment:
    during the regular BSO season in Boston Symphony, the Sibelius has been programmed 4 times (and some were for multiple-night sets).
    The database does list every single concert as a separate event, and lists all summer and Pops performances as well, interspersed with the main BSO subscription concerts.
    In the original review, I had called it seldom-heard because neither I nor anyone sitting within several seats of me had ever been able to hear it live, and we were enthralled, but surprised by its unique character.
    However, I take your point.

    Comment by Laura Prichard — August 9, 2015 at 7:59 pm

  7. Thanks to Brian Bell for that information. In fact, the Sibelius concerto is probably one of the most frequently performed of all violin concertos, as the long list of BSO performances in the last one hundred years confirms. Now that we’ve established that, I second Brian’s vote for the excellent Nielsen concerto. I suggested this to Nikolaj Znaider (who has recorded the piece) when I met him at a BSO concert. I also wonder why we never hear (in Boston) Nielsen’s great Clarinet Concerto.

    Comment by George Hungerford — August 9, 2015 at 8:39 pm

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