Joshua Bell, a Bernard Rands world premiere, and the Boston Symphony Orchestra under guest conductor Alan Gilbert filled stately Symphony Hall with instrumental singing. Thursday evening’s La Mer chanted, swept with sensations and brushed colors of Debussy.
For British-American Rands, “music sings,” has melody. Listeners, “will hear music in many ways. There is no right answer.” Music and listening are a “private relationship.” His published works number past 100. Major orchestras all over have performed his compositions. For seven years he was composer-in-residence with the Philadelphia Orchestra. He is Walter Bigelow Rosen Professor of Music Emeritus, Harvard University.
Commissioned by the BSO, Rands’s Symphonic Fantasy in One Movement, running 20 minutes in a moderated tempo, presented listeners refinements of orchestral play from rich sonorities to fanciful flourishes. Spaced among these appeared a solo horn, unison strings, and an array of instruments in unmistakable melodic voice, singing as it were. His harmonic palette obliquely referenced that of Debussy. That dream-inducing series of notes (whole-tone scale) on the Frenchman’s slab of colors found its way in the Fantasy. Was this why La Mer followed rather than Beethoven? Rands never having formally studied orchestration might explain the individual brilliances in his instrumental thinking. Fantasy warmed the hall.
Claude Debussy perceived, “There is nothing more musical than the sunset.” La Mer: Trois esquisses symphoniques (The Sea: Three Symphonic Sketches) ebbed and flowed musically, melodically. Absorbed with the radiance of vibrations—of waves—Alan Gilbert and the orchestra breathtakingly illuminated La Mer. “From dawn to noon at the sea,” “Play of the Waves,” and “Dialogue of the wind and the sea” offered no ambiguity, no impressions, all became perfectly clear, even more so with eyes focused on the swirling, rolling, rippling motions from the podium. Imagine one extended and all-encompassing song. The orchestra beamed one glorious sunrise in the opening sketch, danced intricacies in the second, and in the last brought Gilbert off his feet for the final note.
Everywhere, Joshua Bell plays to sellout shows for plenty of sound reasons. Be it accuracy and precision, the two measures of observational error? Be it a natural musicality and melodiousness, both properties of being genuine? The 45-minute three-movement Violin Concerto in D Major, opus 61, Beethoven’s only work for that instrument and orchestra, has continued to interest floods of performers, listeners, theorists, and historians alike since its time of composition in 1806.
After almost four decades and countless performances of the Violin Concerto, Joshua Bell still is singing. During an orchestral passage, Bell pulled a handkerchief from his pocket, turned to face the orchestra then wiped his forehead in rhythm to Beethoven. Courtship comes to mind over and again. In black attire, seriously tapered trousers, the still-young artist, through his violin, introduced himself fervently, then lovingly, and finally joyously all through the crystalline lens of Beethoven. No reason to doubt such songful love would bring Symphony Hall to its feet.
Grammy Award-winning conductor Alan Gilbert has been Chief Conductor of Hamburg’s NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchestra since fall 2019, putting “Hamburg on the map as a musical center and leading the orchestra into the first rank” (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung). He is also Music Director of the Royal Swedish Opera. He also holds positions as Principal Guest Conductor of Japan’s Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony, and Conductor Laureate of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic. In 2017, Gilbert, a New Yorker, concluded an eight-year tenure as Music Director of the New York Philharmonic, “helping to change the template for what an American orchestra can be.” (New York Times). From 2011 to 2018, Alan Gilbert served as Director of Conducting and Orchestral Studies at the Juilliard School, where he was also the first holder of Juilliard’s William Schuman Chair in Musical Studies. He made his Metropolitan Opera debut in 2008, leading a production of John Adams’s Doctor Atomic.
Hopefully, the wait is not long before Gilbert’s return to the BSO.