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Haitink’s Rest Yields Surprising Rewards


Last week’s marvelous all-Brahms BSO subscription series [reviewed HERE], which began uncharacteristically on a Tuesday, found its pattern interrupted further when estimable emeritus conductor Bernard Haitink decided he would need the afternoon (Friday) off. Into the breach stepped artistic administrator Anthony Fogg, conductor Moritz Gnann, principal oboe John Ferrillo, and the orchestra’s winds and brass with a rewarding and unusual one-off first half.

According to management, the starting point for the all-Italian opening portion was John Ferrillo’s long-expressed desire to play the Allesandro Marcello Oboe Concerto in C (or D) Minor. This led to selection of the other pieces: Gabrieli canzoni for brass and the charming Rossini arrangement from Barber of Seville for (mostly) winds.

The selection of three canzoni and one sonata pian ’e forte came from Gabrieli’s Symphony Sacrae of 45 motets, 16 canzonas and sonatas. In arrangements for various numbers of trumpets and trombones by Robert King and Timothy Higgins, brass fire excited the air in the hall to a glorious combustion of resonance. I needn’t tell readers that we weren’t listening to the Doge’s natural sackbuts usw, but rather to unapologetically modern instruments with unnaturally perfect plumbing. Antiphonal effects varied with the changeable seating, but in all four numbers, as in the harmonie arrangements concluding the half, it was a pleasure to be able to see those players. This show made a great case for restoring tiered seating to the stage.

Gnann shaped and phrased the polyphony with fine legato inflected with many hairpins as well as with dramatic accents and dynamics. The romantic engagement from the players showed how much they enjoyed the spotlight. Principal trumpet Thomas Rolfs’s highwire act absolutely wowed and Toby Oft led his fellow trombones as a lordly diabolus.

Normally content to intone the great solos in the standard literature (although pleased to have played the Strauss Concerto with this orchestra), Ferrillo has nevertheless been lobbying for a chance to solo in Marcello’s rarely heard oboe concerto (tell me what classical host used the first movement HERE as an intro). The second movement in particular appealed to him, he told Brian Bell, for the aching melody so handsomely embellished by Bach. It starts out like that more famous Venetian’s Winter.

With the support of a reduced string contingent, Ferrillo could depend upon chamber music interaction and symmetry of ideas. How can one describe his sovereign tone and musicianship beyond saying that it is unsurpassed in natural, indrawing musicianship plus superhuman breadth? The first movement’s virtuoso flights of course astonished, but the deep repose and delicacy from all hands in the second movement truly elevated the piece into a depiction of profound resignation and acceptance. Perfunctory in less committed performances, the third movement’s diet of trills and mordants signified and satisfied on this afternoon, owing to the string’s unclipped, pearlescent clarity and Gnann’s determination to extract every nuance.

Harmonie ensembles made a practice of bringing larger works to working stiffs in affordable reductions. On this occasion, the BSO winds strutted to Wenzel Sedlak’s period arrangement of selections from Barber. What sly oboe wit Mark MacEwen and Amanda Hardy disclosed. On clarinet, William Hudgins answered him with winks. The bassoons galumphed in rat-a-tat accompaniment but also managed Largo al factotum patter at improbably high speed with vocal grace. Overall, Rossini came to us in roseate hues. Gnann determined that the accelerandos really wound up and the angularities and surprises all registered. Only the reduced Rossini crescendos somewhat failed in effect.

Moritz Gnann leads BSO and soloist John Ferrillo (Hilary Scott photo)

’Twas a pity the second half left the realm of inspired programmatic impulse, but that probably resulted from limited rehearsal time for this unusual concert. The traversal of Mozart’s 40th felt rushed, rubato-rein, rather square, although others found that it sped by dramatically, especially with the omission of the last movement recapitulation repeat. That movement channeled a bit of rage, but within predictable bounds. Hudgins’s clarinet solo alone floated out of the quotidian texture into poetry.

And as for the resting Haitink, who sat across the aisle from me, he bounded away pretty fast when I politely asked for his reaction to what all of us had just heard.

Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer


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

  1. When did this program change from Haitink/Brahms to Gnann/various?

    Comment by Will — May 5, 2018 at 5:22 pm

  2. Friday’s BSO program with Moritz Gnann was part of the full season schedule announced more than a year ago.

    Comment by Bill Blake — May 5, 2018 at 11:56 pm

  3. Folks- Sorry about the implication that this concert came about because of last-minute contingencies.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — May 6, 2018 at 9:51 am

  4. Interesting that Haitink sat in audience- supports my statement that musicians OFTEN do this
    like lawyers watching each other in court, or actors watching from backstage

    Comment by virginia eskin — May 6, 2018 at 11:19 am

  5. Haitink is a mensch.

    Comment by Bill Blake — May 6, 2018 at 1:29 pm

  6. Will is correct that this concert was part of the full season schedule. Why we Friday afternoon concertgoers were treated to this will have to stay a mystery. But it did give the BSO woodwind and brass players a chance to “show their stuff”. We have heard for years in Boston about magnificent Chicago and Cleveland brass and woodwind sections, and they indeed are great: I have heard them both in situ. But on Friday they were wonderful: Ferrillo on his oboe, and Rolfe on his trumpet were outstanding. The Rossini was a “lollipop” to use the words of Sir Thomas Beecham. But the Mozart failed the day, not because of lack or rehearsal time–it was a scheduled concert, and the Haitink concerts were pieces the BSO could almost play from memory–but because Gnaan played the soul-searching symphony with too much muscle, often rushed, and tried to put his mark on it with too many excessive accents and forte. Bu those of us who went, we treated to the filling in the Haitink’s Oreo sandwich!

    Comment by RSB — May 6, 2018 at 4:43 pm

  7. I enjoyed the Friday afternoon concert but agree with RSB’s assessment of K.550: often too brisk, and heavy-handed in some of the transitions, to capture the pathos and soul of this rare minor key Mozart symphony.

    I think Moritz Gnann has the right stuff, though – his conducting in the other offerings Friday as well as in earlier programs was effective. I particularly remember his adroit collaboration with Menahem Pressler in Mozart’s B-flat concerto, K.595, back in 2016, after which Gnann led a bracing account of the New World Symphony.

    As for the decision to interpose this particular Friday program between the Brahms concerts with Bernard Haitink, there’s actually no mystery. The BSO and Maestro Haitink’s management long ago made a careful mutual decision to avoid performances on successive days during this, his valedictory visit. The unusual Tuesday-Thursday-Saturday evening series was the only way for him to do the Brahms three times without going back-to-back – in retrospect, both a wise and delightful decision in light of the surprisingly rewarding Friday concert (nice, Lee!)

    Comment by nimitta — May 6, 2018 at 6:21 pm

  8. Why not remove the implication that Haitink forced a programming scramble?

    Comment by Will — May 9, 2018 at 1:50 pm

  9. If I revise the review, then the comments won’t make any sense…

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — May 9, 2018 at 4:08 pm

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