The Boston Symphony began 2017 on Thursday with many felicities of programming and execution, not the least of which entailed disclosures of works new to the orchestra, and even composers of the past whose output had up till now been totally or almost totally neglected. The concert also served to limelight some worthy back benchers. And it also found Assistant Conductor Ken-David Masur leading at Symphony Hall for the first time since November 2015.
The entire evening, with more pieces on it (five, all multi-movement) than any we’ve seen in recent memory, consisted of concerted works for winds and brass, starting with Vivaldi’s Concerto in C for piccolo, strings and continuo, RV 443, with Cynthia Meyers as soloist. It is entirely possible, indeed probable, that this was written originally for sopranino recorder rather than the transverse piccolo, but the modern instrument, especially in Meyers’s capable hands, is especially good at conveying the combination of virtuosic brilliance and quicksilver smoothness of Vivaldi’s writing. While our sometime BMInt colleague Zoe Kemmerling’s printed note did its best to gin up enthusiasm for the musical substance of the concerto, it struck us as not at the pinnacle of the composer’s inspiration, except (and this observation will be carried forward to most of the pieces on the program) in the slow movement, with its wistful pastoral quality conveying hints of the pan-pipe in the solo part. Masur led his reduced forces, including the continuo grouping of cellist Martha Babcock and harpsichordist John Finney, in a dynamically deferential but rhythmically assertive accompaniment in the jaunty outer movements. Meyers, ever fluid and nimble, with restrained but effective vibrato, received thunderous approbation from the audience.
Before the concert began, Masur announced a change in order, which produced as the next item, André Jolivet’s Concertino for Trumpet, Strings and Piano, with principal trumpet Thomas Rolfs as soloist and BSO staff pianist and frequent BSOCP collaborator Vytas Baksys at the keyboard. Jolivet (1905-1974) was a composer of enormous subtlety and charm, a student of Edgard Varèse and collaborator with Olivier Messiaen who first adopted, and then rejected, the modernist atonal esthetic for a nuanced diatonicism laced with moments of spikiness, which integrates all tendencies into a perfect Gallic stew. As with contemporaries like Poulenc and Françaix, it would be a mistake to consider his music as charming fluff; nobody who went through World War II came out unscathed and unsobered. The Concertino, dating from 1948, tightly integrates three movements into one 10-minute package, with a jazzy and sometimes noisy first, a slow movement sounding like the score to a film noir, with especially effective chromatically sliding string harmonies against a lyrical solo line, and a clattering and mostly jolly finale. Rolfs executed all with brilliance and a tone of utmost clarity and purity. The piano part is mostly subdued and integrated with the orchestra, making this concerto kind of the flip side of the Shostakovich First Piano Concerto, though Baksys had a brilliant passage between the slow movement and finale. Masur, who separated the three movements more than other conductors do, achieved excellent balance of forces and a nicely clipped sound for the orchestra. The BSO has only performed two compositions by Jolivet, the Concerto for Ondes Martenot in 1949 and this Concertino, which Rolfs and Baksys played with the Pops in 2004. There should be more from Jolivet here in the future.
The first half ended with the Concerto No. 2 (!) in E-flat major for Two Clarinets and Orchestra by the Moravian-born František Vincenc Kramář, yclept Franz Krommer (1759-1831), a distinguished Viennese classicist from whom, as with François-Joseph Gossec until last year, not a note has heretofore been heard from the BSO. Though himself a string player, Krommer, like contemporaries Franz Danzi and Anton Reicha, bequeathed a wealth of repertoire for wind players. A good thing, since despite being highly regarded in his day, he suffered the humiliation any composer would of being in competition with Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. This concerto dates from 1815, when Beethoven was in full flower, and while it very occasionally nods in the direction of the developing Romantic esthetic, it gets nowhere near as far into it as, say, Hummel. That’s not to say that this piece is without interest, far from it. Krommer had a keen ear for what the clarinet could do, and with two at his disposal (the soloists were BSO principal William R. Hudgins and colleague Michael Wayne) devised for them fiendishly intricate parallel passagework and interweaving lines, and some highly effective orchestration. The opening movement displays many standard orchestral and harmonic flourishes (and an occasional chromatic surprise), but here it’s all about the clarinets, and Hudgins and Wayne were at it like squirrels chasing each other through the trees, matching each other’s dexterity while sustaining a Mylar-coated slickness and sheen. The slow movement was easily its best, more emotive, with the soloists well paired but displaying distinct personalities, Hudgins with the edgier sound and more inflected phrase endings, Wayne with a uniform smoothness. The finale, alla Polacca, didn’t strike us very much like a Polonaise as one has come to know it post-Chopin, but it went down well, and brought forth some distinctive and clever pizzicato accompaniment. As with most virtuoso showcases, the job of the conductor is to keep things together and moving without getting in the way, and in this Masur never faltered.
After the intermission came what struck us as the night’s best work (Schumannites might cock an eyebrow at that), the Trombone Concerto in C of Nino Rota, again the first time the BSO has played anything by this composer. Giovanni Rota Rinaldi (1911-1979) was, of course, one of the most acclaimed composers of film scores of the 20th century, but he also studied with Rosario Scalero at Curtis (along with Samuel Barber and Gian Carlo Menotti), and like other distinguished film composers such as Korngold, Rozsa, and Herrmann, produced a significant body of concert music. Over recent years we have become familiar with his chamber music, of which the clarinet trio, string quartet and mixed nonet are all wonderful exemplars. The Trombone Concerto, dating from 1966, was written for the principal of the orchestra of La Scala, and has in short order (admittedly against scant competition) become the leading concerto for the instrument. It would be hard to imagine an improvement over section principal Toby Oft, who executed with tonal purity, elegant legato, careful phrasing and, as called for, jubilant bounce. In a compact three movements, it is a gem, with a direct and vigorous opening movement that is over, seemingly, in a trice. The slow movement is lyrical and motivic at once (there’s a two-short, one-long motif that underpins all the movements, with intimations of Shostakovich), building to an intense climax before subsiding into something like one of Rota’s classic evil-clown passages before closing on a heartbreaking shift from minor to major. The finale works the motto rhythm into a characteristic Rota number that will remind listeners of his Fellini scores.
Schumann’s Konzertstück in F for four horns and orchestra, op. 86 from 1849, the most familiar piece we heard, though the BSO has not done it all that often, closed the evening. A concerto in all but name, in three attached movements (though Masur took a longish pause after the first), the “soloist” here is an entire horn section, which in this case comprises BSO principal James Sommerville, along with colleagues Rachel Childers, Michael Winter and Jason Snider. With four space-consuming players in the soloist’s spot next to the conductor, the orchestra, which was the largest complement of the evening, got rearranged a bit and squashed back against the walls, which may have contributed to a somewhat muffled orchestral sound. From the get-go the horns were gloriously creamy and suave. The stück itself, of which Schumann thought rather highly (for good reason), is one of those upbeat “Florestan” entries in his catalogue, like the Rhenish symphony, whose slow movement hardly counters this, but offers a wonderful duet taken by Childers and Snider. It is perhaps a function of the acoustic issues mentioned before, but the orchestral sound was not as bright in this performance as some others we’ve heard, and while the tempi were appropriate, and Masur certainly looked like he was calling for a vigorous approach, we sometimes found the horns underplaying their phrase endings.