New Englanders certainly know how to autumn. Bursting colors, brisk walks, and tweed jackets, shifting rhythms and new patterns of light: all affect our gait and outlook, subtly coaxing both a release and a bittersweet relinquishment of summer’s hope and wild abandon.
Paradoxically, a spring-like spirit of renewal was continuing at Symphony Hall, where second-year Boston Symphony music director Andris Nelsons joined slightly strange musical bedfellows Thursday night in a perambulation through Beethoven, Brahms, and Providence native Sebastian Currier.
Currier’s Divisions, a challenging study in contrasts, began with plucked harp and low, rumbling strings, dark and foreboding, followed by a trumpet solo ending almost as immediately as it began. A swift ricochet between orchestral sections is a hallmark of Currier’s writing; tiny bits of roguish bassoon interchange with splattering bass trombone, and we walk on unstable, ever-shifting ground. Relying on a predominantly atonal harmonic palette, Currier’s forays into stable tonality further on in the piece felt earned and near cathartic. Divisions is an orchestral showpiece of cinematic design; if Elliott Carter had scored Indiana Jones in place of John Williams, this is how the score might have turned out.
As always, one wonders what connects disparate pieces on a program. Beethoven and Brahms are an obvious match, but why Currier? Especially on a subscription program weighted toward chestnuts, an inevitable sense of “eat your Brussels sprouts” comes across with the inclusion of contemporary music. Yet Currier proved a useful tour guide for the evening; with ears primed by his ever-shifting prisms of coloration, the old masters came off fresh and invigorating. The near-capacity crowd reacted positively to the composer, who came out for an extended series of bows.
Taking over for pianist Paul Lewis (a late scratch due to unexpected surgery), German pianist Lars Vogt proved a winning, if idiosyncratic soloist in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Minor, Op. 37. Nelsons launched the orchestra in perhaps more stately manner than is typical, allowing slightly more sunshine than stürm. Modern orchestras have a tendency to skew toward the futuristic, Mahlerian side of Beethoven but Nelsons’s opening indicated this performance would classically restrain the master. (This feels appropriate for a concerto indebted in tone and construction to Mozart’s dark, magisterial Piano Concerto No. 24 in C Minor, K. 491, which Beethoven is reported to have heard while on a walk with composer Johann Baptist Cramer.)
Of late I’ve taken to a number of long, leaf-strewn walks myself, remembering that Beethoven did a great deal of his composing not at the piano but rather, on long walks through Vienna. This concerto, which Beethoven began in the autumn of 1799, carries a flavor of organic rumination set to ordered meter, particularly in its opening Allegro con brio. Long walks, of course, allow for a sustained period of thinking and processing set to a steady beat, and one suspects that this music originated perhaps not as ‘pure music’ but rather, as accompaniment for issues Beethoven was wrestling with in his personal life, including a preposterously hectic performing schedule, the belabored process of writing this very composition (which took over three years from its start until its 1803 premiere), and the first inklings of the hearing loss which would plague him the rest of his life.
Vogt’s pianistic style is characterized by sharp, sudden contrasts between a reckless energy manifesting in a deliberate, heavy and harsh attack (one often “notices” Vogt hitting the keys), and an almost inaudible, impossibly quiet pianissimo that seems to linger and suspend time. His lumbering, somewhat inelegant physicality at the instrument, grinning and frequently stomping his left foot, suggests a wide-eyed madman hungry to consume the next bar or phrase. (At the risk of leaning on a cultural stereotype, I’ll observe that Lars Vogt seems to play the piano as one might imagine someone named “Lars Vogt” would do such a thing.) The cadenza at the end of the first movement (Beethoven’s own) featured a more organic relationship to tempo than the somewhat helter-skelter opening, as Vogt was granted the freedom to dictate subtle fluctuations sans accompaniment.
The second movement Largo in E major, with its explicit connotations of sentimental Vienna, allowed Vogt to appear as master architect; indeed, one gets the sense he relishes the process of building something unexpected in the moment. Clearly, Vogt knows this piece well enough to jet across the ocean to perform it at a moment’s notice.
The final movement, a harmonically shifting, ebullient sonata-rondo, proved the most successful in terms of organic integration between soloist and orchestra. As Nelsons drew forward confident, precision counterpoint from the orchestra, Vogt was forceful but playful, spinning forth perfect little whirlpools of melody, the famous descending stepladder melodic motive steadfast and finessed. Vogt’s fine artistry (and impressive scheduling flexibility) were rewarded by a warm embrace and standing ovation from the appreciative crowd.
As compelling as Currier and Vogt were, Brahms’s Second Symphony stood for this listener as the evening’s most satisfying bounty. Nelsons coaxed forward lush, warm, regal colors from his players, and from the very outset, one had the sense of embarking upon a real journey, as richly cinematic as the Currier. As commonplace as bread and butter for the modern orchestral player, Brahms’s symphonies often come off as stolid, ponderous and predictable; by contrast this ever-shifting, revelatory outing conveyed equal parts sunshine, breathless yearning, and whimsy.
It’s easy to forget how much of any given interpretation is set in rehearsal, with the conductor’s final role relegated to standing as a mere cuing system for what’s already been worked out. (Even more so the case for a piece like the Brahms 2nd, which this orchestra knows awfully well.) Thus, one pays close attention to how much “work” the conductor seems to do during the performance.
In that sense, Nelsons is particularly watchable. His command of gestural specificity extends to his entire body: at one moment an eagle with fully engaged wings; at another, deftly enveloping a closing set of fingers around the decay of a note like a magician losing a handkerchief up a sleeve; at another, slicing and carving wide swaths of air to encourage a broad, cohesive blend between sections; at another, simply relaxing his arm on the podium and allowing the orchestra to swim freely. Even with his back turned to the audience at the conclusion of the first movement, one could sense his beaming to the orchestra. [Side note to the BSO: recruit an enterprising choreographer to collaborate on a cross-organizational production of dancers channeling Nelsons’s gestures and developing other movements inspired by them. How fun would it be to watch an orchestra perform alongside a group of dancers, all co-led led by the same conductor?]
There are gazillions of recordings of this repertoire; the only reason to hear it live is to rediscover it afresh, in-the-moment. Such triumphant and utterly enthralling Brahms made a believer of this listener.