in: Reviews

September 27, 2016

BSO Opens with Lang Lang and Russians

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A glass of wine and assorted small-bite-eats prepped the capacity crowd Saturday for the opening concert of the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s 136th season (its 117th in Symphony Hall, and their third under Music Director Andris Nelsons. The all-Russian extravaganza was chock full of crowd pleasers: Dmitri Shostakovich’s Festive Overture, Op. 96, Serge Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Major, Op. 26 (featuring superstar soloist Lang Lang), and Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition in the orchestration by Maurice Ravel. One naturally expected sonic spectaculars, but I had not anticipated the various ways that the brass section of the orchestra would create ravishing and intoxicating sounds.

Dmitri Shostakovich completed his Festive Overture in A Major in 1954, the year after Stalin’s death, and in the wake of his cathartic Tenth Symphony. It is one of the first unalloyed, lighthearted works in Shostakovich’s output since 1936 when his opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, ran him afoul of Stalin’s censors. The overture’s light, high-spirited tone, free of the sardonic irony of the wartime works, has made it a staple of Pops orchestras around the world. Nelsons and the BSO gave the overture an opulent reading. The opening segment featured a brass choir that was stunningly attuned to each other, matching breath, vibrato, and tone to generate a heady mix of overtones and partials, particularly from the lush middle and lower brass instruments. There were other pleasures to be sure, like the spiky insouciance with which the three clarinets presented a troika-like theme, the flavorful color and bloom of the strings’ pizzicato playing. and the subtle slow-down to a reprise, ending the overture with the same glorious brass that began it.

Serge Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3 is the most popular and widely performed of his five creations in this form. There are moments of gentle lyricism in the work, but it’s most beloved for the spiky rhythms and orchestra writing, and the kind of punchy solo writing that reminded the world that the pianoforte is a percussion instrument at heart. It’s an ideal vehicle for the flamboyant showman and one-man industry that is the pianist Lang Lang, last heard in a solo recital last October (reviewed here).

The first movement had plenty of Lang’s characteristic high-velocity, impeccably clean playing, accompanied by dramatic hand flares and the fingers of one hand darting between those of the other, though without the half-body twists and contortions of the solo recital. The orchestra provided beautifully shaped support. In the louder passages, they drowned out the pianist (though at least one video that I have seen, balances sounded better, so this may have reflected my vantage point in the first balcony left). A passage with low growling trombones near the end of the movement offered another chance to hear the BSO brass in its full glory.

In the theme-and-variations slow movement, Lang showed more interpretive range, here with a breezy blueness, there with an evocation of a twisted children’s faerie tale, even a nocturne which seemed to owe a debt to Rachmaninov. The final movement offered more stunning instrumental interludes, but a blazing Lang-led fusillade of octaves and scales brought the concerto to a thrilling conclusion and brought the audience to its feet.

After several ovations, Lang returned to the keyboard for an encore. He chose to transition from the sardonic frenetics of the Prokofiev to the melancholic sentimentality of Mexican composer Manuel Ponce’s Intermezzo No.1 (1909). It struck me as strange that he chose this piece in an all-Russian program, and even stranger that this was also the first encore at his solo recital last October. I’m not sure if the choice reflects a deep abiding obsession with Ponce’s piano writing, or a lack of creativity and range in encore choices.

Modest Mussorgsky created the knuckle-busting piano suite Pictures at an Exhibition in 1874, as a tribute to his friend, the artist Victor Hartmann, who died the year before at age 39. A posthumous exhibition of Hartmann’s work inspired Mussorgsky to transmogrify/translate/interpret his friend’s work from paint to piano. The surviving Hartmann images that inspired this work can be seen here.

The fiendish difficulties of the piano piece led it to languish in obscurity until Serge Koussevitzky commissioned an orchestration from the French master, Maurice Ravel, whose orchestration adds a dizzying range of orchestral colors to the piano work; he plays with tempos, making some faster and some much slower than those of the original. It offers a chance for an orchestra to show off, and Nelsons and the Boston Symphony didn’t disappoint.

The piece begins with a meandering Promenade, which becomes a recurring motif, summoning the image of an art lover strolling through a gallery looking at a sequence of paintings and tying the work together. Each of the other movements is a tone poem evoking one of Hartmann’s artworks from his posthumous exhibition.

The opening Promenade is a high, exposed trumpet solo, dispatched with character and aplomb by principal trumpet Thomas Rolfe. The rest of the trumpets, trombones, and tuba joined in, and rendered the well-known tune with a gorgeously blended and tuned sound. Subsequent repeats of the Promenade showed off the glories of the BSO wind section (led in the first reprise by principal horn James Sommerville), a beautiful matching of sound and give-and-take between wind choir and lower strings, and a stunning blend of brass and winds in the final reprise.

To create each individual painting, Nelsons and the BSO worked hard to render Ravel’s distinctive and varied orchestral colors with precision and specificity. They created vivid sonic depictions of each of the images in a way that would be very difficult to achieve on solo piano. Thus “The Old Castledisclosed a tight, flavorful ensemble with alto saxophonist, two bassoons, and English horn alternating with dreamy hushed strings. “Cattle” depicted an ox-drawn wagon, with cellos and double basses lumbering with a rustic, slightly irregular rhythmic refrain backing up a soulful and exposed tuba solo by Mike Roylance. For the “Ballet of Chicks in their Shells,” the harps, oboes, flutes, and clarinets offered a chorus of amusingly hyperactive, cheeping chirps. The fiercely articulated unison string playing in “Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuylegave way to a high-wire act of muted high repeated notes from first trumpet Rolfe. In “Catacombs,” the lower brass played ravishing, overtone-laden chords with all kinds of dynamic shading, and “Among the dead in the language of the dead” stunned with hushed wind and string tremolos. “The Hut on Chicken’s Legs” (Baba Yaga’s Hut) possessed a Harry Potter-esque magical sweep to it, and the concluding “Great Gate of Kiev ended grandly with an eardrum-splitting but controlled and balanced aural explosion that brought an appreciative crowd to its feet.

Andris Nelsons conduct Lang Lang and the BSO (michael Blanchard photo)

Andris Nelsons conduct Lang Lang and the BSO (michael Blanchard photo)

Over the last few years, I’ve been excited to hear the members of the Boston Symphony play with increasing commitment as an increasingly tight ensemble under Nelsons. Of the many memorable sonic glories in this opening gala, though, that intoxicating brass most intensely lingers. It gave this self-confessed overtone junkie a healthy fix.

A shortened version of the opening program, with only the Shostakovich and Mussorgsky, will repeat at 8 p.m. in this week’s “Casual Fridays” offering. Nelsons will remain in town for the next two weeks, offering a concert version of Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier featuring Renée Fleming as the Marschallin and Susan Graham as Octavian on September 29th and October 1st. and Jörg Widmann’s Trauermarsch (Funeral March) for piano and orchestra with Brahms’s Ein Deutsches Requiem on the weekend starting Thursday, October 6th

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.

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