At the Boston Symphony’s first concert of 2019, we witnessed the return as guest conductor of one of its former assistant conductors, the Korean Shiyeon Sung, in a program featuring Fanny Mendelssohn’s only orchestral work, one of her brother’s once-omnipresent and now sadly neglected piano concertos, and the most orotund and genial of Dvořák’s late symphonies.
Since her stint in Boston from 2007-2010, Sung has been the Associate Conductor of the Seoul Philharmonic, the principal conductor of the Gyeonggi Philharmonic (in Suwon in the province surrounding Seoul), and a globetrotting guest conductor. She made a big splash leading the Berlin Philharmonie in Mahler’s Fifth Symphony in 2017 (she had also performed Mahler 5 with Gyeonggi Phil). Boston’s substantial Korean population seemed to have come out in a massive show of support, as the hall, which has not been registering sell-outs that often on Thursdays when we’ve been there, was packed.
Fanny Cäcile Hensel, née Mendelssohn wrote her Overture in C in 1831 for a Hauskonzert at the Mendelssohn homestead (one heck of a big Haus, it later served as the upper chamber of the Prussian parliament). The BSO gave an abridged reading for a children’s concert in 1999, so this was their first full go at it (it’s not very long). Coincidentally, the Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra will also be performing it on January 13th. After a rare opening-note clam, its graceful slow introduction sounded a bit harsh, before its playfully abrupt fanfare-heralded allegro di molto main section took off. The music reminded us most often of Weber, though the second subject betrays more of the apparently family-wide Mendelssohnian touch. The work contains many delightful melo-harmonic digressions; it would indeed be nice if it were played more often, though one should not look here for a neglected masterpiece. Sung kept the pace chugging along, but seldom let the orchestra break loose expressively.
A few days ago the English musicologist and critic Norman Lebrecht published a blog entry on his Slipped Disc site in which he listed works that were once supremely popular and that are now seldom heard. Felix Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in G Minor, op. 25 premiered in 1832 with the composer at the keyboard; for nearly 150 years it was one of the most widely performed example of its kind. Nowadays it is a concert-hall rarity—since 1984, after a decade and a half where it was played most often by the Pops, the BSO has performed it exactly five times (counting by weekend series), one of those a one-off at Tanglewood. Hearing it again provided context for both its popularity and its neglect. Written in just a few days, it is full of flash for the soloist (in 1838, in one of her rare public appearances, Fanny Hensel performed it), but despite the glorious can-can finale it lacks the depth and tenderness of Mendelssohn’s best writing (e.g. the violin concerto, the Scotch, Italian and Reformation symphonies), while its undeniable internal technical perfection doesn’t carry the day when not married to first-level melodic and harmonic inspiration.
Pianist Íngrid Fliter, whom Marta Argerich encouraged to leave her native Argentina and who has been an active and peripatetic soloist, has only appeared once before with the BSO, at Tanglewood in 2016. She is nothing if not dexterous, and combined remarkable steel in the frequent runs of the outer movements with a silky evenness of touch. In the slow movement she brought out the Chopinesque qualities of Mendelssohn’s filigree passages, and then reveled in the terpsichorean jollity of the bounding finale, with some well-judged rubato. It may have been a quirky acoustical vagary, but the sound of the piano, especially in the first movement, was buzzy, almost as if miked; by the finale, we didn’t notice it so much. A rather diffident accompaniment disappointed us; everything fell into place, for sure (some crescendi could have started softer), but save for some uninhibited dancing moments in the finale, things just didn’t seem to gel emotionally. Our guess is that early Romantic rep is just not something that engages the Mahlerphile Sung. Fliter indulged the audience in an encore, Chopin’s Nocturne No. 8 in D-flat Major, Op. 27, No. 2, which elicited the same virtues of silk and steel she brought to the Mendelssohn, in much more subdued ways.
In a fulsome and rip-roaring performance of Dvořák’s Symphony No. 8 in G, op. 88 (1889) we finally got to hear what does engage Sung. In this case. The crispness and precision she brought to everything were married to a mellowness and warm humanity. In the first movement, as indeed throughout, the winds and brass were in fine voice (flutist Elizabeth Rowe got a call-out at the end, but so should clarinetist William Hudgins and their respective colleagues have). We note also the dynamic control evident throughout of a subtlety that somehow escaped Sung’s attention earlier in the evening. The slow movement (is it really a funeral march, as Michael Steinberg’s note would have it?) brought out connections between the nature-sound elements in Dvořák and Mahler; one should bear in mind Mahler’s Bohemian origins. The allegretto grazioso third movement had a lovely lilt, but ended up a bit zu schleppend for our taste. Bravo to Thomas Rolfs for the brilliantly enunciated trumpet fanfare opening the finale, as well as the blood-pounding breakout of the horn trills in the raucous restatement of the principal theme, while its initial statement in the strings provided a model of decorum and dignity.