IN: Reviews

BSO’s Two-in-One Concert


Mitsuko Uchida (Winslow Townson photo)

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.

Betsy Jolas acccepts ovation. (Winslow Townson photo)

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.

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).


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

  1. After reading the program note I was really looking forward to “Letters from Bachville.” Unfortunately, the piece failed to deliver on my expectations. I’m glad Betsy Jolas so enjoyed composing it, and I congratulate musicologists and musicians on all the value they may find in it. But to me, a rank amateur who very much enjoys listening to the music of J. S. Bach, “Letters from Bachville” did not evoke the Leipzig Cantor. Sadly, the phrase that came to mind as it was being played on Thursday evening still sums up my feeling: a complete waste of time. Maybe, when I listen over the radio on Saturday with lowered expectations I’ll feel differently. If so, I’ll let you know.

    On the other hand, the slow movements of the Ravel and Shostakovich were magnificent.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — November 8, 2019 at 5:02 pm

  2. To clarify: my (too quick?) reading of the program note led me to expect some recognizable, if brief, quotes or clear allusions to the music of Bach. In the course of “Letters” I heard two such. Any other quotes or references were imperceptible in the overall wash of music. Ms. Jolas knows where the Bach is hidden in her music, and I’m sure the musicians do as well. But I didn’t hear Bach, and I probably need to approach “Letters” with no thought of hearing Bach in it. Then the two little snippets can be kinda fun.

    Comment by Joe Whippple — November 8, 2019 at 6:59 pm

  3. I had a different impression of Betsy Jolas’ Letters from Bachville. My reading of the program notes, grounded in some familiarity with other of her works, led me to expect an impressionistic, occasionally hallucinatory, almost Ulysses-like amble through Leipzig’s winding byways as succinct, abstracted snatches of Bach flickered here and there like fireflies. Be they snippets of melody, a string texture, a half-measure of counterpoint, or even a time signature redolent of a beloved work, these arose and passed quickly, flitting across a sonic landscape utterly unlike anything dreamt of by the Leipzig Cantor. I enjoyed the often surprising routes the piece took through the modern-day Leipzig of Jolas’ mind, and particularly loved the last several minutes – quite a trip!

    By the way, the highlight Thursday night was Mitsuko Uchida’s traversal of the Ravel concerto’s Adagio assai – one of the most sublime unfoldings any of us will ever hear, with superb accompaniment by Nelsons and the orchestra. As for the Shostakovich: smartly and enthusiastically realized, achieving the full (if a bit painful) volume level demanded at times by the score.

    Comment by nimitta — November 9, 2019 at 6:20 pm

  4. Uchida’s piano masterclass at New England Conservatory on Monday morning was remarkable! Three rather incredible young musicians played music by Schubert and Mozart and Uchida’s reactions were respectful, playful, and inspiring. The young players seemed to inspire her as well. An incredible occasion.

    Comment by Hiller — November 11, 2019 at 6:39 pm

  5. Watching and hearing the two wonderful pianists in the Mozart A Major concerto switch between tutti and solo several times was a delicious surprise. Each was terrific in both roles. Uchida certainly egged them on in the switches. This would make a fine road-show gig for the two young pianists. Also unusual was the actual piano-playing that Uchida contributed in longer than usual examples of the points she wished to stress during the session. A happy two hours.

    Comment by Alan Levitan — November 12, 2019 at 6:06 pm

  6. Nimieea has captured the essence of “Letters from Bachville.” If only, like her, I had realized that was what it would be. Approaching it in something of that vein over the radio on Saturday, I found it much more satisfactory.

    And I completely agree about Mitsuko Uchida in the slow movement of the Ravel.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — November 15, 2019 at 6:05 pm

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