in: Reviews

August 12, 2017

Electrification in Koussi’s Shed

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As the BSO’s stay at Tanglewood comes to a close, Tanglewood Music Center fellows get peppered into the orchestra’s ranks, and the heavy hitting pieces come out. Case in point: Friday evening’s performance, as the BSO devoured Dvořák, Brahms, and Stravinsky. Under the baton of Giancarlo Guerrero and featuring Gil Shaham and Alisa Weilerstein in the Brahms Double, the whole evening was about as electrifying as Tanglewood can be.

Guerrero made his BSO at Tanglewood seven years ago and has appeared with the group sporadically since then. Throughout he led with both economy of gesture and sweeping histrionics, and for the most part the orchestra responded well. The very few ‘moments’ could have been chalked up to the realities of a Tanglewood performance, shed acoustics and humidity. His ear mainly attended to texture, resulting in definite, sometimes bold, ideas. His encouragement of the brass (evidently undeterred by Richard Strauss’s famous admonition), while largely giving the first violins free reign (or leaving them orphans) stood out, but even the most ambitious achievements were not out of place. Just bold.

Off to the races went Dvořák’s Carnival Overture, although the races referred more to the audiences’ heart rates rather than the breakneck, but erroneous, tempi some conductors feel obliged to take in this piece. Already brimming with vital energy, and constantly shifting counterpoint (often less so), Guererro’s spot-on tempo allowed all the finely crafted details to show through, preparing from its ingredients a complex tiramisu when others are content with a shrink-wrapped Twinkie.

While this reviewer is loath to advocate for the ubiquitous and often unearned double and triple curtain calls Boston audiences seem unable to avoid demanding, the bizarre effect of witnessing one for an overture was allayed by its being well deserved and by Guerrero’s using the opportunity to acknowledge some soloists.

Audience favorites Gil Shaham and Alisa Weilerstein (the moniker seems insufficient for these beloved superstars) soloed in the Brahms Double Concerto. One is tempted to say they were the soloist, as they seamlessly played virtuosic dialogues with singular voice, making a kind of hyper-solo wherein one plus one equaled far more than two.

Only the occasional moment when one or the other had a different concept of a pianissimo disturbed this unity, such minor disruptions were only discernible amid such native perfection. Again, Maestro Guerrero led adroitly, the angular gestures from the Dvořák occasionally giving way to moments no less defined but with breathing space which the orchestra appreciated. Durng a few episodes (and here breaks a cardinal rule of concerto conducting) the orchestra was actually too soft; some string lines vital to the interplay and development of Brahms’s unfolding landscape went missing, but on the whole the structure which is at the heart of Brahms’s preternatural beauty shone through.

Gil Shaham and Alisa Weilerstein and Giancarlo Guerrero (Hilary Scott photo)

The instinct for and devotion to accurate tempi Guerrero showed us earlier became essential in Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, a piece which frequently suffers from conductors’ re-composition, but such violation, owing to its structure and musical importance, constitutes a felony rather than a Dvořákian misdemeanor. Conducting from memory, Guerrero lived in the Rite, at times seemingly acting out what would be the savage action on stage, and he brought the orchestra along by sheer force of will, if not a little charisma and good nature as well. Choosing to have principal bassoon Richard Svoboda hold the initial fermata on that infamous high C quite long transported the listener instantly to that 1913 Paris premiere, where for some (if one is to believe to story) that was the first and last note they could clearly discern before the hooting and shouting began. Guererro’s ear for texture was the second indispensible arrow in his quiver; while some humidity-related false starts appeared in the reed-heavy Introduction, independent and often lost parts like the English Horn and Alto Flute (what is it with that range?) clearly projected. The hammering chords of the “Augurs of Spring” could have been sharper, but again, the humidity. This also led to the only evident tempo adjustment, made mid-movement, but the settling to a slightly more laid-back speed helped all concerned.

The conductor’s take on the Stravinsky disclosed all of its brutal savagery, but also his firm and evident respect for the monumental work and a desire to present it in all its glory. For those unaware that the score has things like a second trombone, an alto flute or two contrabassoons, this interpretation was for you. In fact, it seemed like it was for Stravinsky.

Patrick Valentino, a graduate of New England Conservatory, is a Boston based conductor, composer, performer and author. More information can be found at his website.

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