Expectations had risen to lofty highs for the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Nelsons, with Mitsuko Uchida in Ravel, a Betsy Jolas premiere, and a Shostakovich symphony—the BSO has garnered a total of four Grammys for its recordings of the Russian. Thursday evening at Symphony Hall felt more like two programs than one: first, the French, and after intermission, second, the Russian.
Nelsons and the BSO gave the American premiere of Letters from Bachville. French composer Betsy Jolas surprised many with her presence at Symphony Hall. At age 93, she completed the 14-minute BSO commission just this year. It is not the first time Jolas, who has prominently figured in the contemporary music scene for decades, has drawn upon the past; she also nods to Haydn and Ravel. A lengthy list of percussion instruments appearing in the handout previewed what was to come.
Not surprisingly, soft scraping sounds started Bachville. Guiro, sand blocks, sizzle cymbal, lion’s roar, and numerous others interspersed, ritornello-like, throughout a color-filled orchestral field. Rhythmic aspects beckoned extraterrestrial reaches. Her slow-moving spectra, while signaling Serialism’s ways of the past century, always found refreshment.The ways of Jolas break with the Europeans, found a natural refinement, humor, and a subtle sense of humanity. The big question: what percentage of Bach references could one make out in the quarter-hour work? Could a trumpet’s slow “trill” count? Or, was Bach-finding really the key?
As Betsy Jolas walked from her seat in the orchestra section to the front of the hall, her welcome could be seen and heard by way of a protracted standing—honoring—ovation.
At 71-years-young, Mitsuko Uchida, attired in a diaphanous layer, billowy slacks, donned large-lens glasses and graciously acknowledged her many admirers at Symphony Hall, before offering Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G. The matchup of the debonair Ravel and the cultivated Uchida proved miraculous. Oft-played repertory is predicated on interpretation, but such thoughts flew out the window during the transformative vision. Instead of the more usual open flaring of Spanish flamenco, American jazz, and the like, Uchida re-envisioned Ravel as craftsman―gemologist, as composer; her elevated framing of each of the concerto’s three movements achieved perfection.
Rather than going out, Uchida pulled in, and so did Nelsons and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. This three-in-one performative achievement drew profound attention. The final Presto movement seemed over before it began. The ever so serene Adagio seems to have suspended collective breath. Nobody seemed to be moving in Symphony Hall. One after another, the winds picked up on the extended piano passage incomparably threading together the slow second movement. And thinking back further to the Allegramente, that Uchida touch instantly took hold with the orchestra. Together, Uchida, Nelsons, and BSO evinced an exalted treasure.
Multiple ovations erupted, bringing Uchida and Nelsons back. Each time one had to wonder if she would surrender to an encore—after that? Can anyone remember another so prolonged a display of ecstatic gusto as this? Yet we thrilled not to hear an encore.
After intermission, a “second concert,” if you will, had listeners traveling a long, long way for Symphony No. 12, Opus 112 “The Year 1917” of Dimitri Shostakovich. The 12th might be what one imagines symphonies are all about, that is, action-packed storytelling. Revolutionary Petrograd early on landed hard on the ears with brass and percussion at the threshold of pain. Razliv, where Lenin stayed in hiding, felt longer and longer, so by the time Aurora, the battle cruiser symbolic of the start of the Revolution October 25, 1917, arrived, fatigue had set in. After the The Dawn of Humanity, ears were ringing. The 12th, being recorded, should reveal BSO’s best intentions.
The concert repeats on Friday, November 8, 1:30 pm, Saturday, November 9, and Tuesday, November 12.