IN: Reviews

BSO Opens With Reverie and Reality


Hannu Lintu (Hilary Scott photo)

Opening night at Symphony Hall arrived with a fabulously designed showcase of our world-ranked Boston Symphony Orchestra. Dominant composers Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky, and Bartók summoned another giant, Serge Koussevitzky. Recall that Koussevitzky conducted the premiere of Symphonies of Wind Instruments and, incredibly, commissioned Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra premiering it with the BSO in 1944.

Twentieth-century reverie and 21st-century reality held sway.

Dedicated to the memory of Claude Debussy, Symphonies of Wind Instruments feels right when a heavy heart is at hand, but dirge driven it was not under the baton of Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra Chief Conductor Hannu Lintu in his BSO debut. Rather, Stravinsky’s Russian and French penchants took on those of Lintu.

The summoning sounds from clarinets that begin Symphonies cried out harshly. Stravinsky adopted the literal meaning of the word symphonies or “sounding together.” Next, the entire wind ensemble follows with presentiments of the chorale that will close the piece. Here, repeated chords with intervening silences inhaled rather than exhaled, reaping stinging edginess.

Those gorgeous Parisian harmonies uttered by brass come with “overtones,” one being the flute high above. Eschewing a natural blending, the flute tone stood out prominently, giving away some of the magic of Stravinsky’s orchestrations. In fact, Lintu played much with the composer’s voicings.

Episodic in nature, Symphonies of Wind Instruments would not be knitted, as Lintu’s swaying body indicated, rather, the whole work had halting written over it.

As with Boston’s Far Cry’s strings and visiting Sphinx Virtuosi’s strings (see review), the BSO stood for Tchaikovsky’s Serenade in C for Strings, opus 48 and “performed without conductor.” At first blush, could this classic have lost its way—or say—over time? In retrospect, I wondered if Lintu had coached the BSO strings. Good old emotional trips (as in elegy) and dancing steps (as in waltz) fell under the spell of ART. BSO stoutly carved Tchaikovsky’s superlative idiomatic string writing into a shining stone sculpture.

To capture opening night succinctly it might be said that Lintu and BSO offered the narrowest bandwidth of emotion thought possible with such works.

Anxiously anticipating Béla Bartók’s wondrous Concerto and referring to the BSO, one seasoned concert-goer commented “It’s in their bones.” Sadly, as with those of the other evening’s composers, the Hungarian’s voice kept silent. Concerto for Orchestra disappointed with its immersion in 21st-century trending, its post modernism, or its deconstructionism.

Winds and percussion particularly came off as digitally mastered, strings and brass eschewing analogue warmth. 

Excitement and more excitement, faster and faster, louder and louder, the Concerto zoomed by hardly ever, if ever, taking time for a breath—for an evocation of the human. It was action all the way, something of a blockbuster out of today’s Hollywood.

Only the Andante non troppo that begins the Koussevitzky-BSO commission came close to the composer’s own voice. The worst of the performance was the passage wherein Bartók quotes a jocular folk tune that might have come out of an Eastern European holiday fair. Thursday evening garishness replaced playfulness.

Serge Koussevitzky

Readers may be interested in the Koussevitzsky-BSO 1944 recording of the Concerto for Orchestra [HERE]. Even through the agency of a lesser recording technology, a very different temperament prevailed. It’s numinous, gaiety, puckishness, commemorative rapture, and contemplative yearning…mostly went AWOL last night.    

BSO’s showcasing of strings, winds, brass, and percussion kept its promises with supreme artistry in evidence everywhere, solos, ensembles, and tuttis.

Yet, I yearned for creepy crawlers and folksy souls among many other characters in the Concerto. This was not the Bartók I know and love.

The audience would disagree, given its generous pours of praise and adoration.

David Patterson, Professor of Music and former Chairman of the Performing Arts Department at UMass Boston, was recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Award and the Chancellor’s Distinction in Teaching Award. He studied with Nadia Boulanger and Olivier Messiaen in Paris and holds a PhD from Harvard University.  He is the author of 20 Little Piano Pieces from Around the World (G. Schirmer).


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

  1. Count me among the people who heard a wonderful concert Thursday night. With all due respect to Mr. Patterson, I thought this was the most enjoyable performance of Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra that I’ve heard the BSO perform over the years (and I’ve lost count). I thought that Hannu Lintu brought a clarity to the interpretation that was welcome, and I found it unusually engaging. The Tchaikovsky was lovely. The BSO started the season with an outstanding concert and the quality of the playing was superb. I’m scratching my head over this review, to be honest with you. And I DEFINITELY want to hear more of Hannu Lintu.

    Comment by Mogulmeister — October 13, 2018 at 7:16 am

  2. I’m wondering where in the piece the slighted “jocular folk tune” occurs. Could it be the cruelly parodied Shostakovich quote? Mogulmeister’s praise is valid for Friday’s concert as well.

    Comment by martin cohn — October 13, 2018 at 9:31 am

  3. I concur with Mogulmeister. I didn’t enjoy the Tchaikovsky, because I am constitutionally unable to enjoy Tchaikovsky, but as far as I could tell it was well played. The other two works, both favorites, were superb. I don’t know whether the review is criticizing the Stravinsky work or the performance, but in either case it is absurd; the wind section brilliantly realized Stravinsky’s attempt to escape from expression into pure music. Every few seconds brought a new revelation, an undiscovered sonority raised to the surface, a new harmonic invention, a rhythmic surprise. The Concerto for Orchestra was familiar in all the right ways, and new in all the right ways as well. An auspicious beginning to the season.

    Parenthetically, I don’t know if you could come up with a better program to demonstrate to a newcomer why Symphony Hall deserves its reputation.

    Comment by SamW — October 13, 2018 at 12:30 pm

  4. Add our names (John and me) to those who raved about the performance. As the former member of the board of a string orch., I listened to what I began to feel were too many performances of the Tchaikovsky — until Thursday night. It was a radiant performance. I really felt the heart that T put into it. As for the Bartok, it too was a superb performance, fast, to be sure, but breathtaking and intense. So the audience thought, as well. At the gentle end of the 2d movement and before the start of the 3d, one could feel the riveting effect on the audience. And the audience erupted at the close of each piece.

    Comment by Bettina — October 13, 2018 at 2:07 pm

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