Ripe with an intimate humidity and a potent cocktail of bug spray, pinots, and cheese, the Koussevitzky Shed welcomed Sir Andrew Davis, violinist Lisa Batiashvili, and the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
Davis and the BSO began with a clear-eyed vision of the Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis by Ralph Vaughn Williams. The composer’s fascination with English Renaissance Music colors much of his work, and this Fantasia is no exception. The music of Tallis and his Renaissance countrymen Byrd and Gibbons (who also helped shape Anglican choral liturgy) is never trying to assert itself. To our Bach-tuned ears, the modal harmonic language seems riddled with anguished cross relations and at times seemingly unresolved harmonic structures. However, underneath those impressions, the listener is taken on a decidedly spiritual quest, rather than one of individualism. Vaughn Williams captures this aesthetic for a post-modal world. Hear Thomas Tallis’s Third Tune for Archbishop Parker (Why F’umth in fight) [here] and Orlando Gibbons’s “Lord Salisbury’s Pavan” [here].
Vaughn Williams also splits the orchestra into several distinct groups. Visually this makes a welcome break from the norm, and aurally highlights the organ-like textures. Most importantly, this choice reinforces the echo effect in a great cathedral (which is certainly where one hears this work best). The BSO strings conceived a very robust and focused sound throughout. Perhaps they could have chosen a broader tone through the use of more bow rather than more pressure—generally something one sees European orchestras doing. The many solos, however, floated in a beautifully reserved pastoral manner. Throughout it all, Davis and the BSO successfully conveyed the lavish imagery and elegant string writing in a less-than-ideal acoustical space.
Inspired by Brahms’s new concerto which arose from a collaboration with violin virtuoso Joseph Joachim, Dvořák started writing his Violin Concerto in A Minor right after the premiere of the Brahms. The powerhouse of an opening immediately sets the mood with a passionate but short fanfare from the orchestra. This reviewer can vouch for the difficulty in diving right into the first solo after such an orchestral introduction. In fact, achieving a balance between soloist and orchestra is an especially challenging task throughout. So often the violin can be drowned out by the orchestra by virtue of Dvořák’s writing (one wonders why a man of his 6-foot stature allowed this!) and this can create a prickly push-and-pull between orchestra and soloist. Additionally, the violin part is uncomfortably written, even when compared to more difficult openings of concertos by Brahms or Paganini. However, when played with enough breadth and gusto, it is a truly grand effect. The Georgian-German violinist Lisa Batiashvili, with her consummate technical strength, launched the concerto with latitude and panache. There was no clutter to speak of. In general, her playing is more spoken than sung; she often prefers portato technique to separate legato slurs. She maintained a trenchant poise, never forcing the instrument past its limits.
Batiashvili could have done more to distinguish the violinistic style of this piece from that of, say, the Brahms Violin Concerto or other Romantic war horses. While it is certainly a matter of taste, she opted for a more German than a Czech Dvořák. In the final bars of the first movement, Dvořák writes a delightful chamber interlude with the violin’s quiet yet expressive lament accompanied by a small group of winds. The performers treated it more as an extension of robust concerto writing, and could have done more to exploit the opportunity to do something truly breathtaking. In the second movement, Batiashvili’s playing never lacked suppleness, and she displayed a clear understanding of when to be chained to bar lines, and when to stretch across them. It was wonderfully balanced and expressive.
The crisp, energetic third movement felt downright frisky from both orchestra and soloist. While I would have liked to hear more of the pesante feeling, I was very glad to not hear the finale of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, which is often what ends up happening when violinists perform this work (with more pom-pom-pom, of course). About half way into the movement, Dvořák suddenly introduces a lamenting d minor dumka-esque melody, with indication to avoid preparing it using rubato or tempo changes. In a moment of beautiful fidelity, the performers listened, and were able to alter our mood without needing a “checkpoint to re-calibrate.” Batiashvili closed with a rowdy and virtuosic coda. Her approach was more muscular than, say, the effortless and transparent sound of Nathan Milstein [here] but equally convincing, and appropriate considering the venue.
Before proceeding to an encore, Batiashvilli spoke about the horrors that occurred in her hometown of Munich just earlier that evening, and how art can help us create a better future for our children. With the assistance of Davis and the BSO, she performed Fritz Kreisler’s arrangement of the Largo theme of Dvořák’s Symphony No.9 “New World.” Charming and spiritual, it felt like home.
Far from the dark and misunderstood Symphony No.4, Jean Sibelius’s Symphony No.5 was commissioned to celebrate the composer’s 50th birthday. It carries an earthbound spirituality that, according to biographer James Hepokoski, reflects the composer’s secluded forest retreat at Ainola. Even in the opening 3-note motif, which the BSO beautifully portrayed as series of melismatic echos in the flutes and oboes, I heard the sound of birds. To be clear, I also heard actual birds, as the concert was appropriately accompanied by the chirpings of the Tanglewood avian choir. Somehow, it did enhance the mood.
Describing his own work, Sibelius wrote “…in a deep valley again. But I already begin to see dimly the mountain that I shall certainly ascend. . . . God opens His door for a moment and His orchestra plays the Fifth Symphony”. This is quite an image to live up to, and the performers finally delivered it in the last movement. It left an especially powerful impression. The utterly majestic triple-time motif, which begins in the horns, is said to have been inspired by the transcendent sound of swan-calls. Sibelius described witnessing 16 of them taking flight at once. Through all of its considerable breadth and beauty, I was left with one feeling—that of hope. I was reminded of Batiashvili’s earlier message to the audience—one of hope and beauty triumphing over the ugliness of our world. In that moment, in that space, the musician and occasional idealist in me began to feel that maybe music can really be an answer…
Overall, a Symphony Hall setting would have let this excellent program soar higher. Nevertheless, the performers captivated auditors seated in the front of the shed, and families picnicking on the grass alike.