Presiding at Tanglewood for this whole week, Andris Nelsons lead the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra (made up of graduate Fellows) in an All-Brahms program on Sunday and two wide-ranging Boston Symphony concerts in the Koussevitzky Shed. Saturday night’s program topped this collection of powerhouse performances with dramatic, lyrical playing of violinist Augustin Hadelich in Sibelius’s Violin Concerto and a surprise appearance from Pulitzer Prize-winning American composer John Corigliano.
Four of the TMC Fellows hail from Massachusetts this year (violinist Miki Nagahara from Andover, violist Charlotte Malin from Westwood, cellist Andrew Laven from Wayland, and bassist August Ramos from Brookline), and most of the TMC Orchestra attended the BSO concerts, especially applauding Corigliano, who appeared for a series of bows following the performance of his Fantasia.
The evening was framed by Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 and Corigliano’s Fantasia on an Ostinato, inspired by and generated from the first theme from the former symphony’s stately Allegretto. Corigliano’s piece was very warmly received, with the composer receiving a partial standing ovation after three minutes of applause for the music itself. This work made a welcome return to the BSO repertoire, only having been heard once before in its orchestral incarnation (exactly 14 years earlier, with the BSO under the direction of Leonard Slatkin). It was premiered as a piano solo at the 1985 Van Cliburn Piano Competition and expanded for Zubin Mehta and the New York Philharmonic in 1986.
The composer’s own program notes reveal his conflicting feelings toward the compositional movement of minimalism in the mid-1980s: “While I admire [minimalism’s] emphasis on attractive textures and occasional ability to achieve a hypnotic quality (not unlike some of Beethoven), I do not care for its excessive repetition, its lack of architecture, and its overall emotional sterility.” These comments make sense in the context of Corigliano’s other works of the 1980s: his film scores for Altered States (and the orchestral suite extracted from that film entitled Three Hallucinations) and for Revolution (recorded, but not released, by RCA) date from the same decade. After leaving his teaching position at the Manhattan School of Music in 1986, he became the first composer-in-residence for the Chicago Symphony (completing his Symphony No.1) and spent over seven years developing his opera The Ghosts of Versailles (premiered in a sold-out run at the Met in 1991).
Corigliano’s Fantasia is divided into two parts, with striking orchestration evoking the percussive beginning of Stravinsky’s Les Noces, liberal and effective use of harmonics for the full string section, and ostinato patterns (esp. from the bells and flutes) that submerge and reappear. Conductor Andris Nelsons achieved a well-controlled, gradual crescendo that spanned almost five minutes and seamlessly integrated a well-balanced choir of low brass and woodwinds with piquant solos from the high winds. The score calls for several extended instances of rubato, with a gorgeous quartet of violins expanding to a string octet and a gently undulating chromatic chorale section. Beethoven’s music quoted (and elaborated upon) near the end of the sixteen-minute work, following a thrilling climax full of buzzes, murmurs, and flashy passagework. Unfortunately, the Fantasia ends with a whimper, fading away, and leaving the audience wanting more.
Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 closed the evening with fiery dance rhythms and contrasting articulation. Nelsons gestured more economically throughout, and the orchestra responded by adopting a more intimate, conversational tone (with less expressive nuance) in the quieter movements.
The centerpiece of the concert was Grammy-winning violinist Augustin Hadelich’s fourth performance with the BSO. The crystalline tone of his 1723 Kiesewitter Stradivarius violin was most effective in Sibelius’s many cadenzas and more lightly-scored passages. Following a successful BSO performance last summer of this same violin concerto with Leonidas Kavakos under the direction of Charles Dutoit, [review by this author here], Music Director Andris Nelsons conveyed a radically different take on the work: he struggled to keep the full orchestra from dwarfing the soloist in louder passages, and scaled down the work’s sometimes extreme contrasts of dynamic and tone into a more subtle interpretation. Hadelich often employed a heavy, fat vibrato for sustained tones, and achieved uniformly perfect octaves and multiple stops, even in the most difficult passages. Dressed completely in white, Hadelich employed a restrained physicality and delicate, singing tone to create a relationship between himself and the BSO that was much more like collaborative chamber music than flashy mainstage virtuosity. While sometimes lacking in fire and bombast, his second cadenza in the first movement and heavier vibrato in the Adagio brought out some of the expected pathos. Michael Steinberg’s note asserted that “Sibelius wrote his [concerto] for a kind of ghostly self,” and the quietest parts of this concerto evoked that spectral quality perfectly.
Hadelich’s encore underscored his love of intimate, multi-voiced textures. The Andante from Bach’s Violin Sonata No.2 in A Minor, BWV 1003 showed attention to rubato legato melodies while maintaining constant rhythmic support through double-and triple-stopped quarter-note ostinati. This soothing, fascinating choice encouraged awe of technical beauty rather than searing emotional intensity. It contrasted highly with his recent solo recordings (Histoire du Tango, with guitarist Pablo Villegas) and his own acclaimed recording of the Sibelius and Ades concertos with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic from 2014 (both on the AVIE label).