IN: Reviews

Waterworld, Fractured World, New World


This weekend the Boston Symphony Orchestra welcomes back to the podium Ludovic Morlot, replacing the medically incapacitated conductor Jiří Bělohlávek. Also returning, also in glory, is cellist Johannes Moser. If you were not at last night’s concert, snap up any remaining ticket to hear this program of Smetana, Martinů, and Dvorak.

The program opened with Smetana’s Vltava (The Moldau) from Má Vlast, his symphonic poem paying homage to the river running through the north of Prague. The orchestra was immediately responsive to Morlot, who offered a thoughtful and spirited take, giving it a zest for life in this airing, which commences like a stream bubbling forth from its source, acquiring depth on its determined path. The music possessed an air of freshness, though the piece is (overly?) familiar now and Morlot led the Boston Symphony Orchestra into an insightful reading of it; even the pastoral middle section was endowed with a sense of restrained power. Precise rhythmic punctuation, like fixed rocks interrupting water’s course, lent weight to this music.

The sixth symphony of Bohuslav Martinů, Fantaisies symphoniques, rounded out the first half. Dedicated to Charles Munch and the BSO on the latter’s 75th anniversary, it received a world premiere at Symphony Hall in 1955. Unfortunately, this fascinating work has not remained a constant fixture in the orchestra’s repertoire, and was last heard in 2001. In three movements, this symphony spans multiple oscillations between Lento and Allegro. The first movement opens with the energy of swarming bees. The sound is ominous, less a fantaisie in spirit than a cauchemar. This sonic nightmare could score a film following survivors in a post-apocalyptic thriller. This dark busyness strongly marks the contrast with passages of tender sweetness. The movement ends with massive chords. The second movement scherzo opens with the return of the swarm—stronger, bigger, angrier.  A lively hocket with shades of Stravinsky and Shostakovich, Tchaikovsky remains discernible in the background. In the middle of the symphony a love story offers harmonious and lyrical respite but there is no return to the gilded past for Martinů, nor for his listeners. A Moravian chorale gives way to a whirling dervish captured in musical notes at movement’s end. The third movement opens with a lush theme possessing the warmth of a tropical landscape, tainting the love with illicit passion ere the swarming dissonances return to the fore. A lugubrious coda makes of this symphony almost a plea for the fantasy voiced herein never to be realized. Bleak and disjointed (yet, on a deeper and ineffable level, wholly connected) music may portray a dystopic world; this performance brought that vision to palpable life and made the ending statement opposing the reality just heard all the more impressive.

Johannes Moser and Ludovic Morlot (Liza Voll photo)
Johannes Moser and Ludovic Morlot (Liza Voll photo)

Following intermission, we returned to the landscape of Bohemia and another cornerstone of today’s concert halls and of the repertoire of cellists: Dvořák’s Cello Concert in B Minor, op. 104 with Johannes Moser as soloist. First heard with the BSO last January in Saint-Saëns’s first cello concerto [reviewed here], his return to the stage of Symphony Hall, even if in the ubiquitous Dvořák evokes my gratitutde. Moser gave a memorable performance of this romantic showstopper and renewed my earlier love for it. From Moser’s initial entrance, a swooping, arm’s-length-circular placing of the bow on the A-string, drama was assured; the beauty was that the music never took a back seat to the visual effects. He emphasized the ways Dvořák’s writing stretched the then-perceived limits of the cello, and did so in a musically sensitive way, showing a fabulous technique harnessed to a keen musical mind. Throughout there was rhythmic precision, and the music was phrased so the lines had room to breathe. Impassioned and playful, Moser’s rendition encompassed a full palette of timbres and colors. His bowing was a compendium of articulations, smartly chosen. Moser employed rubato as judiciously as I have ever heard in this concerto. At times, these well-known phrases took a decidedly classical turn, offering new perspectives. Overall, the exuberance, testified to the confidence of a skilled musician in prime form having fun on the concert stage. For all that, Moser executed this virtuosic workout with the interplay of voices and lines which mark memorable chamber music; the orchestra engaged fully.

Cashman Kerr Prince, trained in Classics and Comparative Literature, is now a Visiting Scholar in the Department of Classical Studies at Wellesley College. He is also a cellist of some accomplishment, currently playing with the Brookline Symphony Orchestra.


5 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. Martinu 6 is not just dedicated to Munch and the BSO, it was commissioned by them for the anniversary.

    Comment by Martin Cohn — January 22, 2016 at 4:40 pm

  2. Having heard this marvelous concert today, Friday afternoon, I’ll echo the encouragement to “snap up any remaining ticket to hear this program.” Orchestra, conductor and soloist worked together beautifully, and the BSO complimented Moser’s extraordinary playing with many fine solo lines within the orchestra too.

    Comment by Joyce Painter Rice — January 22, 2016 at 8:59 pm

  3. Such a perceptive review. You nicely capture the subtle and unexpected spirit of homecoming that pervaded the evening, which was all about (what Emmanuel Levinas calls) the deities of place — with the Martinu piece so deeply anchored in the history of the BSO. Paradoxically, thanks to the gentle distancing provided by the Bohemian flavor, we were put in radical touch with a host of familiar but bottled-up emotions. What Smetana feels for the Moldau, we New Englanders feel for the Assabet — and the music gave us permission, as it were, to bathe in these feelings.. It was indeed a marvelous concert and you are all right to urge everyone to attend tonight!

    Comment by Ashley — January 23, 2016 at 12:42 pm

  4. Hear hear to your comments on this concert, one that will stay with me a very long time. I went Thursday night and couldn’t resist – returned on Saturday night to hear it again. The Moldau was such a warm and sentimental opening to a wintry night, and the Martinu, for me, was a sit-up-and-listen bristler. The Dvorak in the hands of Johannes Moser was extraordinary. He can do anything, so the choices he made in this performance were something to pay attention to, giving new insight into the piece. The power of his yearning in the adagio was overwhelming at times. The nobility of the horns, the violin and flute solos, the orchestra were all in complete agreement with Moser, and he with them. Bravo Maestro Morlot. On Saturday night he played an encore – the Sarabande from the first Bach cello suite, so we saw what he does sans vibrato. Such an inward performance of that, in complete contrast to the Dvorak, and sending us out into the snow calm and completely sated.

    Comment by Mary S. Jaffee — January 26, 2016 at 9:14 am

  5. This was a really great program of Czech music! If anyone is still craving Bohemian flavor, New England Conservatory is putting on their own production of Janacek’s “The Cunning Little Vixen” at the Cutler Majestic on Feb 6-9. They’ve got some exceptionally talented singers partaking in the production so I’m really looking forward to it.

    Comment by Hannah — February 1, 2016 at 3:58 pm

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