in: Reviews

October 2, 2015

Opulence and Hedonism Launch BSO Season

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The Boston Symphony Orchestra launched its 135th season with an all-Russian program. Celebrating the start of his second season as the BSO Music Director Andris Nelsons, led Shostakovich’s Symphony #9 in E-flat Major, Op. 70; Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto #1 in B-flat Minor, Op. 23 with soloist Evgeny Kissin; and Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances, Op. 45, in grand style, drawing a hedonistically opulent sound; the honeymoon between conductor and ensemble abides.

Last season saw a triumphant performance of Shostakovich’s Symphony #10 (reviewed here) and a recording deal with Deutsche Grammophon in which Nelsons leads the BSO in concert performances of Symphonies 5 through 10. Nelsons cemented the growing relationship between the orchestra and Shostakovich’s music by offering Symphony #9 as the opening work in the gala. This symphony received its U.S. premiere at a Tanglewood concert in 1946 under Serge Koussevitzky. The BSO has only programmed it once since then, in 1962. It does stand apart from Shostakovich’s wartime output. Many anticipated that a symphony written at the end of World War II, with the same number 9 that inspired large-scale masterworks from Beethoven, Schubert, Dvořák, Bruckner, and Mahler would inspire an ambitious score from the Soviet Union’s “court composer.” Shostakovich started just such a score with chorus and orchestra, but tossed the sketches aside, instead creating a breezy, short (under half an hour), five movement work. The structure is almost Classical; it’s one of the few Shostakovich symphonies with a full first movement exposition repeat, and the brooding Mahlerian angst and world-weariness is replaced by Shostakovich’s characteristic sardonic wit.

Last night’s performance showcased the ravishing range of sound that Nelsons draws from the BSO. It showed wide dynamic range, starting with a sprightly, beautifully hushed and shaped sound, building up to earsplitting climaxes and pulling back to barely audible but skillfully executed endings. The strings had a full, well rounded tone (particularly memorable in the lurching waltz-like second subject of the second movement) and moved as with one breath and mind. The winds luxuriated in Shostakovich’s range of unconventional orchestrations and sound textures. The brass choir had a full, gleaming tone, but listened carefully to the rest of the orchestra, producing a sound that blended beautifully with the other sections rather than overpowering them.

Conductor and orchestra explored Shostakovich’s schizoid contrasts of mood. In the first movement, they struck a balance between earnest, impassioned string playing (reminiscent of the war-weary Symphony #7) and impudently banal brass outbursts. Handoffs of musical material between sections were executed flawlessly.

The ensemble handled transitions between the third, fourth, and fifth movements (played without pause) beautifully, moving from will-o-wispish fleetness in the third movement to the brooding foreboding of the fourth. The finale emerged from the fourth at a slower tempo than is usually played, and veered between a Prokofiev-like sleigh ride, a lilt reminiscent of the finale of Schubert’s Symphony #9, and the ominous minor key intrusions reminding us that the world of Shostakovich’s war symphonies was never that far off. The slow starting tempo allowed for a gradual acceleration that was marvelously effective.

On top of the marvelous ensemble sound, the BSO rendered Shostakovich’s many solo moments with stylish panache. Cynthia Myers dug into the piccolo solo at the start of the first movement with spiky insouciance. William Hudgins played the clarinet solo opening the second movement in a wonderfully weird, wayward fashion, in equal parts shell-shocked combat veteran and pranksterish street busker. First trumpet Thomas Rolfs had a jaunty solo in the third movement and Richard Svoboda played the bassoon solo of the fourth movement with plaintive angst over a hushed bed of violas and double basses.

I look forward to the commercial release of the Shostakovich; it should be a remarkable showcase for the luxurious, precise music that orchestra and Nelsons have created together, and bodes well for the additional Shostakovich works to come.

Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto #1 in B-flat Minor, Op. 23 received its world premiere at the Boston Music Hall in 1875with B. J Land conducting and Hans von Bülow as soloist. The BSO took up the warhorse in 1883. This is the second set of performances of this concerto with superstar soloist Evgeny Kissin (the first set was a full two decades ago at Carnegie Hall).

Kissin hasn’t lost his youthful demeanor (though his Einsteinian shock of hair is gone), or his awkward stage presence, eternally uncomfortable with public adulation and ever focused on the music. The playing didn’t have the heaven-storming thundering that turned up in his youth, and there was something oddly disconnected about the playing in the first movement. Nelsons’s full and firm orchestra sound swamped out Kissin’s octaves in the famous opening, and piano and orchestra didn’t synchronize ideally in their interchanges. The middle movement seemed to work better, with Nelsons imparting a gentle lilt to the accompaniment as Kissin took pianistic flight near the end. The finale restored Kissin’s legendary sparkle, interpretive flair, and personality, and quieter, faster runs up and down the keyboard cut through the big BSO sound effortlessly. I wonder if some adjustment was made by soloist or conductor, or if Kissin got over pre-performance jitters; it will be interesting to see if the pattern holds in subsequent performances.

The orchestra, for its part, delivered more lush, opulent sound, with the same wide dynamic range, more fine solo work from the BSO’s assistant principals, including flavorful oboe from Keisuke Wakao, a beautifully paced, leisurely flute solo from Clint Foreman and a soulful cello lick from Martha Babcock.

The first and final movements drew standing ovations from the capacity crowd, and Kissin returned to play an encore. I didn’t recognize the piece, a varied harmonization of a lilting folk-like tune; some post-concert digging suggests it might be Tchaikovsky’s Natha-Waltz, Op. 51, No. 4.

The Symphonic Dances Op. 45 is a work from 1940 by Sergei Rachmaninov. It proved to be his last large piece; a busy concert career in the United States, then progressive debility and death from melanoma kept him from composing for the last three years of his life. The premiere was given by Rachmaninov’s beloved Philadelphia Orchestra, and the BSO didn’t program it until 1974. Since then it was performed in 2014 in performances led by Robert Spano (reviewed here) and the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra under Nelsons (reviewed here).

The work certainly suits Nelsons’s personality well, with its richly varied textures and instrumental combinations, its blend of Russian soulfulness and jazzy modernism, and its many opportunities to display the BSO’s soloist strengths and magnificent ensemble. The first movement evoked a Prokofiev-like soundscape, with an alto saxophone blending in skillfully with the wind ensemble, a striking set of dramatic pauses in the phrase as the orchestra made the transition to the recapitulation, and a stunningly hushed string play-out at the movement’s end.

Andris Nelsons and Evgeny Kissin open BSO season (Winslow-Townson photo)

Andris Nelsons and Evgeny Kissin open BSO season (Winslow-Townson photo)

The second movement is a twisted waltz with a freely shifting tempo rubato, and Nelsons gave the movement an organic ebbing and flowing pace. The repeat of the introductory material gave concertmaster Malcolm Lowe a chance to shine with a droll but vibrant solo. The final movement had a jaunty, almost Spanish feel, with a curious juxtaposition between the Gregorian Dies irae plainchant from the Requiem text and a melodic figure taken from the ninth movement of Rachmaninov’s All-Night Vigil, which tells the story of Christ’s resurrection. Both tunes have a starkly different effect when moved from human voices to strings and brass, and the work was filled with stark contrasts, culminating in a gong crash which Nelsons allowed to die out slowly before welcoming audience applause.

The concert confirms that the orchestra has developed a hedonistically rich sound under Maestro Nelsons which harkens back to the Koussevitzky years. It’s encouraging to see that that sound has been preserved after the honeymoon of the first season together. With Nelsons renewed by contract through 2022, we should be in for some memorable music making at Symphony Hall.

The program repeats today at 1:30 p.m. and Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Both concerts are sold out at the web site, but individual tickets may be available at the box office. It will be broadcast on WCRB on Saturday night.

Nelsons will remain in Boston for three weeks, with upcoming programs to include Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky, Beethoven’s Piano Concerto #3 with soloist Lars Vogt, Brahms’s Symphony #2, and a concert performance of Richard Strauss’s Elektra with powerhouse dramatic soprano Christine Goerke in the title role. Nelsons returns on November 19th, with a program that will include Shostakovich’s Symphony #5.

James C.S. Liu is a physician by day and a baritone and music enthusiast by night. He lives with his wife and daughters in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

11 Comments

  1. In response to a question on its Facebook page, the BSO identified Kissin’s encore as “Tchaikovsky Meditation,” which would presumably be his Opus 72 No. 5; performances can be found on YouTube and the score on IMSLP. I was not there last night, but I’ll check on Saturday—of course, he may well play a different encore then!

    Comment by Stephen H. Owades — October 2, 2015 at 1:12 pm

  2. The irreverent thought occurred to me that the vigorous ovation after the first movement of the Tchaikovsky on Thursday indicated that the audience had had enough.

    But seriously, the admirable flute playing by Clint Foreman at the beginning of the second movement struck me as meriting a notice in the review at least equal to that given Martha Babcock and Keisuke Wakao’s work.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — October 3, 2015 at 2:23 pm

  3. >> … playing didn’t have the heaven-storming thundering that turned up in his youth, and there was something oddly disconnected about the playing in the first movement. Nelsons’s full and firm orchestra sound swamped out Kissin’s octaves in the famous opening, and piano and orchestra didn’t synchronize ideally in their interchanges. … will be interesting to see if the pattern holds in subsequent performances.

    Listening to the live online stream (in spottily ratty sound from CRB), my ear found it all like that Saturday night. (While I’ve never got the appeal of this pianist, either back when or now, the warhorse performance chiefly recalled the shot someone in BSO management once took at Ax: ‘Oh, it’s porridge, but it’s golden porridge.’)

    Comment by David Moran — October 3, 2015 at 10:37 pm

  4. I disagree about Kissin. The applause he got was warranted. I loved the performance.

    Comment by Jonathan Dorfman — October 4, 2015 at 12:03 am

  5. To my ears, Evgeny Kissin has become one of the great pianists of our time…but only in the last few years. As recently as 2011, when he performed an all-Liszt program here and in New York, I continued to hear the same expressive deficiencies that characterized his prodigious youthful performances: a robotic, unconvincing rubato; odd and often jarring agogic emphases; and most striking, an ‘as if’ emotional ambience that dovetailed with his rigid physical comportment and stricken demeanor before an audience. Despite his uncanny digital velocity and marksmanship – I don’t recall hearing a wrong note until 2014! – the playing had always made me uneasy, aware of the pianist no less than the music.

    Something has changed. I heard considerably more authenticity, warmth, and insight in his 2013 appearance here, especially throughout his selection of Schubert Impromptus, and I found his 2014 recital (Schubert 17th Sonata in D, Scriabin 2nd and Op 8 Études, plus a titanic encore of the ‘Heroic’ Chopin Polonaise, Op 53) absolutely stupendous. What was different? It was as if the ‘as if’ veneer of artificiality had dissolved away. His sense of time seemed more organic, the emotions actually lived in, the approach from the inside out rather than outside in.

    How did this apply to the Tchaikovsky 1st concerto, a piece not necessarily very meaningful for such comparisons? In the Friday afternoon performance I attended, it was clear that Kissin and Nelsons were daring to strive for a much greater temporal contrast in the first movement than is usually attempted, and to render its slow themes with unprecedented tenderness, in a kind of hypnotic languor. I don’t remember ever hearing a more spacious opening or second entrance by the soloist above the pizzicatos, and I experienced a bit of mental friction between what I’d expected and what I was actually hearing. It was in the first cascade of octaves, though, that the plan crystallized – not only for me, it seemed, but for the players, and things just took off. From there, everything about this performance stunned me – the bravura, gentleness, nuance, drama, and remarkably flexible accompaniment by conductor and orchestra. The band’s soloists were marvelous as well, particularly Martha Babcock in the 2nd movement’s famous cello part. I confess that after a lifetime of so many T1s I’d given up on ever again being charmed, much less moved, by the piece, but somehow it pierced the shell and got real. This wasn’t just glittering pianism (or “golden porridge” – great, David!) but thrilling and, in the end, utterly compelling and memorable music-making.

    Let me add that Friday’s Shostakovich and Rachmaninoff were also terrific, especially the Sh9. From the very first Nelsons performance I ever heard live, which featured the Shostakovich 1st violin concerto with Baiba Skride as well as the T5, it was clear that he was born to conduct this music. I sense that the BSO’s choice to record the Shostakovich symphonies will prove wise and mark a superb inaugural record of Nelsons’ tenure with the orchestra.

    Comment by nimitta — October 4, 2015 at 11:01 am

  6. Wish I could take credit for that characterization quip, of Ax or anyone else.
    I will have to relisten to Kissin, evidently.

    Comment by David Moran — October 4, 2015 at 11:37 am

  7. Just an aside: Will there ever be another BSO program guide without the Music Director’s picture on the cover? All last year, it was all Andris all the time. This year has begun with the streak continuing. Maybe we should have a BMInt “office pool.” When will the BSO first give us a program guide without a picture of Maestro Nelsons on the cover?

    Comment by Joe Whipple — October 4, 2015 at 2:29 pm

  8. Saturday’s performance of the concerto had the orchestra really well balanced among its sections and with the pianist. They were also playing with the soloist, rather than following him at a respectful distance as sometimes happens. Kissin looked fairly comfortable onstage. An audience member who hadn’t read the review remarked that in the past his gait and demeanor were characteristic of someone on the autism spectrum– which could explain both his amazing discipline and his occasional disconnect from the audience’s attention.

    Anyway, it was a nice weekend for Tchaikovsky, with George Li (home from Moscow) nailing the third movement this afternoon in a From The Top taping.

    Comment by Camilli — October 4, 2015 at 7:39 pm

  9. Re Stephen’s comment: the Tchaikovsky Meditation that I found sounds like this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VXk50yqo4bs That doesn’t sound like what I (now vaguely) remember hearing; can anyone else confirm? (Did he even play encores on Friday or Saturday?)

    Re Joe’s comments: Last year at the Beethoven Violin Concerto, the audience applauded after the first movement also, and that was a very good performance of excellent music. Both movements are the length of some symphonies, so it may not necessarily be a sign of golden porridge fatigue.

    In haste to get this review out before the Friday matinée, I failed to read my hastily scrawled handwriting about Clint Foreman’s terrific flute solo. I’ll try to get the copy amended.

    As far as Nelsons’s image on the cover goes, well, I’d say that between the announcement of the contract extension through 2022 and what I heard in April and what I heard on Thursday, there is no question in my mind that this is now Nelsons’s orchestra. So why not have his face on the cover? I’m happy to have a conductor who will invest his time and energy with this group, and bring them along with him, and I wouldn’t begrudge a program cover.

    It also strikes me as interesting that David and nimitta got two different reactions to the Tchiakovsky. The sharpest contrast of slow tempo for me was in the start of the final movement, as I mentioned above.

    Comment by James C.S. Liu — October 4, 2015 at 9:00 pm

  10. Thank you to James C.S. Liu for the kind responses to my tongue in cheek comment about the applause after the first movement of the Tchaikovsky — I know the audience were thrilled at what they had just heard — my comment about Clint Foreman’s playing — it was the first time I had been so struck by the flute solo, and I’m glad to know that my reaction wasn’t idiosyncratic — and my offbeat comment about the program covers — It’s hard to express exactly how i feel, but however good Maestro Nelsons is, I’m a little bit uneasy at what strikes me as a marketing ploy to create a “cult of personality.”

    Comment by Joe Whipple — October 5, 2015 at 12:18 am

  11. It proved to be his last large piece; a busy concert career in the United States, then progressive debility and death from melanoma kept him from composing for the last three years of his life. The premiere was given by Rachmaninov s beloved Philadelphia Orchestra, and the BSO didn t program it until 1974.

    Comment by Lance Brashear — October 15, 2015 at 11:03 pm

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