With Ken-David Masur at the helm and Garrick Ohlsson at the keyboard, the Boston Symphony Orchestra presented music by John Harbison alongside monuments of the Russian romantic tradition last night.
Salvaging sketches from an earlier foray into an opera on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, John Harbison’s “Remembering Gatsby”: Foxtrot for Orchestra (1985) is a study in contrasts. Only the middle section cleaves to the traditions of a foxtrot. The outer sections recall 1930s film music of Prokofiev. The whole has an episodic feel, and the structure gives an elegiac cast to the whole. Was Gatsby so wonderful, this composition asks, or is it all a dream of a non-existent gilded age? The fine performance was marred only by balance issues: Tamara Smirnova’s violin solos were not always audible over the orchestra. This was not a problem with her solo lines in the Prokofiev. Hopefully the balance can be resolved before the concert repeats.
After a stage re-set to bring on the Steinway, Garrick Ohlsson joined the orchestra for Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in F-sharp Minor, op. 1. We think of Rachmaninoff as the apotheosis of Russian romanticism, abetted in this notion no doubt by recordings of the composer himself at the keyboard. Ohlsson began this work with big, chordal gestures in similar vein (although stricter tempo), but the concerto quickly took on a classicizing mien with lengthy passages of subdued restraint, as the piano took on the voice of limpid grace in the face of a more romantic, impassioned orchestra. Even as the writing for the piano becomes more idiomatically romantic, Ohlsson’s performance remained classical in style. I heard more of the middle voice here and not just the moments of big drama. By the second extended piano solo in the first movement, Ohlsson took on both classical and romantic gestures and phrasings, continuing the earlier conversation but now being conducted by the keyboard alone. The movement ended on an upswell, with applause. The minor-keyed horn intoned the opening of the Andante, recalling Tchaikovsky. Here the piano played with more restraint yielded an added depth of poignancy. By the concluding Allegro vivace, the piano took on the dual roles. The writing seems to anticipate Prokofiev. The surges and swells of the score sound out sonorously. Pauses are pregnant. Rachmaninoff’s tunesmithery takes on familiar soundscapes, and scampering passagework swells into a full-throttled finale. Commendably Ohlsson made a familiar piece fresh and by defying expectations insisted we listen carefully, fully, to what Rachmaninoff wrote, if not what he himself performed.
Recalled to the stage, Ohlsson offered a familiar work: Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C-sharp Minor, op. 3, No. 2. Here he continued exploring the tension between classical and romantic. Here though the towering thunder, the vast horizon populated with cumulonimbus clouds, comes crashing to the fore. The storm passes into silence.
Masur and the BSO closed with excerpts from the Prokofiev’s ballet Romeo and Juliet (ten movements, combining the first and second orchestral suites drawn from the full score). Here conductor and orchestra embraced the full romanticism and doomed tragicality of this music and its eponymous tale. From the portentous meeting of Montagues and Capulets, through the early morning “The Street Awakens” (Where the violin solo could be heard clearly) the excerpts capture the languish and the vigor in alternation. Many movements are playful, as the scherzo-like “Juliet the Young Girl” or “Masks.” There is comedy here: the “Minuet” is heavy-footed, and on a formal level the dance sounds like it is practically crossed with a rondo. The “Balcony Scene” is lush, protracted, and varied. “Friar Lawrence” here is a gentleman of merely medium girth. With “The Death of Tybalt” the music finds its most cathartic release: from the whiff of the psychedelic that swathes the rapid passagework in all its coruscations and swells, the banter and bluster cede to a rather anti-climactic death. This arranged suite ends with “Romeo at Juliet’s Tomb,” and here the music, like the text, is gushing, goopy, and portentous. Masur and the BSO fully embodied the tension, scampering, scarpering, playful fast passagework, and luxuriating unbridled passion; we are the richer for the experience.
Cashman Kerr Prince, trained in Classics and Comparative Literature, is now a Visiting Scholar in the Department of Classical Studies at Wellesley College. He is also a cellist of some accomplishment, currently playing with the Brookline Symphony Orchestra