IN: Reviews

BSO: Luminous Heaven and Stormy Russia


Ken David Masur (file photo)

Tanglewood represents an acropolis of the musical gods, especially for this native Californian—an outsider to the tradition of summering; each performance raises some intangible spirit into the air. From the heavens to the Russians, this Sunday’s afternoon affair proved engaging and accessible.

Aaron Jay Kernis’s Musica Celestis (lit. Music of the Heavens) made for a refreshingly luminous and sublime opening. This affective work for string orchestra, adapted from the second movement of his String Quartet No. 1 evoked an angelic and heavenly lightness that floated out over the grounds. Prior to the anticipated Russian fare, the amicable American composer disclosed captivating beauty. As the notes indicated, one can readily hear the influences of Samuel Barber and his teacher John Adams. Hints of Copland’s open and consonant harmonies appear throughout with the intertwining of joy and sentiment. The work often suggests Barber’s Adagio for Strings, although the top-heavy orchestration extends the sonic landscape further upwards.

Despite its generally high timbre, the cello assumes the role of dramatic singer. With expressive and smooth leaps, Mihail Jojatu soared above the orchestra with thrilling lyricism. Communal excitement grows to an emphatic grand pause, indicating a return to a kind of recapitulation. Harmonics in the upper reaches of the violins emerge in the final section, as if reaching higher and higher for the celestial bodies. These difficult technical feats, especially in the outdoor context of Tanglewood, were precarious and often on the verge of distorting the harmony; however, the care and elegance of the concertmaster Malcolm Lowe provided a sweet, reminiscent conclusion. BSO assistant conductor Ken-David Masur evinced freedom of expression and assured attention to the work’s transparency.

With strength and clarity, and a fiery technique, Russian pianist Nikolai Lugansky soloed in Prokofiev’s 3rd piano concerto. Lugansky has appeared twice before with the orchestra in works of Rachmaninoff, but this ever-popular concerto marks his first Tanglewood appearance with BSO. The soloist displayed moments of turbulent thundering and glistening lyricism, all while remaining punctiliar and focused. In the first movement, the purity of the solo and duo clarinets shone, and the flutes and oboes led passages of virtuosity. With the ever-attentive Masur, the orchestra and soloist were of same spirit and mind in the phrasings and changes in textures.

In the astounding Theme and Variations second movement, emphasis was placed on the exceptional chromatic passing notes to indicate its wandering nature. Lugansky’s bright articulation and clarity came through, recalling his Mozartian bent. The brass contrasted the piano with its crudity, pushing the music into new territories and through unpredictable and often wry turns. The presentation of conflict between soloist and orchestra as well as the completely contrasting themes in the third movement were clearly articulated in Lugansky’s interpretation. The drama and virtuosic demands were especially present in the recapitulation, where the soloist aggressively battles with the entire orchestra just to be heard. With arms that often rebounded above his head, the soloist confidently hammered out arpeggios and chords through the full range of the keyboard.

Lugansky encored with Rachmaninoff’s Prelude, Op. 32, No. 12. Through reserved yet declamatory lyricism and rapid and trill-like accompaniment, the lauded soloist embraced the moment and expertly brought the emotional audience back to the reflective state of the Prokofiev. It also functioned to bridge the more radical compositions of Prokofiev with Tchaikovsky’s older tradition.

Nikolai Lugansky (file photo)

The lengthy intermission allowed one to stretch the legs, throw a frisbee, or even imbibe (ideally all three). Following the break, Tchaikovsky’s exciting 2nd symphony, with its memorable themes and orchestrational mastery, offered a welcome contrast to the first-half. Stuck with an unfortunate posthumous moniker, “Little Russian”, the work includes Ukrainian themes and folk-like dances. The first movement, with its theme based on the Ukrainian “Down along the Volga”, involves a substantial introduction, with beautiful exchanges between French hornist James Somerville and bassoonist Richard Svoboda, and a later dialogue of woodwinds and violins. Masur, with his assiduity to form and articulation, led the steady march and bouncing staccatos underneath the long lyrical phrases in the Andantino marziale (second movement). The following Scherzo maintained forward-momentum with the lively pulsing of tutti strings and aggressive flourishes of woodwinds.

It is hard not to walk from the Tanglewood grounds without humming the fourth movement theme adapted from “The Crane”, a folk song which Tchaikovsky would have been familiar from his pleasant vacationing in the Ukraine countryside: This theme yields a whopping 24 variations, and reiterations of the primary motive occurring in rapid succession to conclude the energetic and colorful finale.

David Stevens is a Boston-based saxophonist and woodwind doubler, recently graduated from NEC with a double master’s in saxophone performance and music theory. In addition to performing, he spends much of his time as an educator, arts administrator, and theorist.


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

  1. “Little Russia” was an unfortunate Russian term for Ukraine. It would be better to call Tchaikovsky’s Second Symphony “The Ukrainian” and avoid the implied insult.

    Comment by Stephen Owades — July 26, 2017 at 3:50 pm

  2. Picky. Sorry, but Little Russia is also like Little Britain, which is Brittany (the region, not the unfortunate girl’s name). For years I didn’t get the point of Brittany and Great Britain–until I saw an art exhibit and read a multi-lingual caption. “Klein Britannien” “Oh, I get it, Gross Britannien und Kleine Britannien. Great Britain and Little Britain.” I don’t think Little Russian is necessarily an implied insult but rather an accident of language. We don’t need Ukrainian political correctness imposed on Tchaikovsky.
    I don’t have a way of generating reviews, but on a totally unrelated matter, there is a very good Donizetti Elixir of Love being done by Boston Midsummer Opera that must be seen and heard.

    Comment by Nathan Redshield — July 27, 2017 at 10:09 pm

  3. Yeah, I was wondering about some cites for the alleged insult. From hasty googling, this is interesting, if true:

    Comment by david moran — July 28, 2017 at 12:18 am

  4. This is a topic of current controversy, because of the turmoil within Ukraine and the tensions between the Ukrainian and Russian governments. Here’s a recent article from the Washington Post (, which says “The word [Malorossiya, or Lottle Russia] is thought to date back as far as the medieval era, but came into widespread use under the Russian Empire in the 19th century when it was used to describe the land that now makes up Ukraine. The term has long been considered archaic in Ukraine itself; some nationalists use it disparagingly, and it is sometimes used as an insult to describe Russified Ukrainians in the country’s east.”

    I agree that “Little Russian” wasn’t intended pejoratively by Tchaikovsky, but given today’s sensibilities, I’d prefer to use the modern term “Ukrainian” to avoid current connotations.

    Comment by Stephen Owades — July 31, 2017 at 4:52 pm

  5. Seriously? Sounds more like a new wack PC standard. Is it not needless? Have there been protests already?

    >> It would be better to call Tchaikovsky’s Second Symphony “The Ukrainian”

    Comment by david moran — July 31, 2017 at 11:24 pm

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