The first surprise in Sunday’s BSO concert came as the opening downbeat introduced the first two chords of Beethoven’s Coriolanus Overture. But anyone who thought, “Ah, we are going to hear Beethoven’s Coriolanus immediately realized his mistake; instantly there came what sounded like the world’s largest rattle, as if a saucy child cries, “Fooled you!” (The sound was so unusual that I had to look at the score after the concert to see what made it. It was not a giant’s rattle, but rather three players—piano, vibraphone, and marimba, the latter two played with drumsticks rather than their usual beaters—all playing dense chords in very loud tremolos. It made a wonderfully sassy interruption for a new piece that retained its seriousness for a couple of seconds.
Its title, subito con forza (suddenly, with power) refers to Beethoven’s dynamism, sudden passages of drive and exciting sonority. The Korean-born Ligeti student Unsuk Chin had included the Beethoven quotation (and other, subtler, references throughout the piece), as a tribute to the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth with the expectation that it would be premiered in the relevant year, 2020.
Guest Conductor Dima Slobodeniouk, born in Russia and largely trained in Finland, first conducted the BSO at Tanglewood in the summer of 2018 and appeared in Symphony Hall in October 2019. He is tall, lean, with a commanding presence that shaped the well-known Bruch Violin concerto in G-Minor and the Brahms First Symphony with alert responses to their energy and expressive dynamics.
The Bruch concerto is almost the only orchestral work performed regularly, at least in the United States, by a composer who was once widely popular. Before the end of the 19th century he was especially famous also as a composer of oratorios, many of which were regularly featured in New England festivals. Even of his three violin concertos, only the first can be called thoroughly familiar, in the repertory of most violinists. It has soaring romantic gestures that span wide rangers, linked by lickety-split decoration calling for lightning finger work. The much-loved soloist Itzhak Perlman has been a regular and welcome fixture for years at Tanglewood both for his expressive musicianship and his evident delight in performing. And the ineffable sweetness of his sound in lyrical passages was very much in evidence in the slow movement. But it struck me, at least on this occasion, that the virtuosic flourishes were not as precise and clean as I expected after having heard him many times in the last half century, in a wide range of repertory. He has just turned 77, and there may some element of slowing down. Nonetheless, the audience clearly enjoyed his efforts
I was seated next to a gentleman who told me how much he generally disliked contemporary compositions. He had attended the concert especially to hear a favorite work, the closer “Brahms One” (as musicians like to refer to the symphony that finally issued from the composer when he was in his mid-forties). I pointed out to his that this work used to be genially hated by concertgoers, at least until the turn of the century, when a Boston critic proposed labeling the new Symphony Hall with warning signs: “Exit in case of Brahms.” But, of course, it has long since earned its warm welcome, especially to lend its sobriety, contrapuntal growth, lyrical passages, and structural solidity to end a concert with satisfying gravity. Dima Slobodeniouk took the measure of the Brahms and paced it well from the pounding timpani behind the opening chromatic tension of the first movement’s introduction to the dactylic rhythm galloping to the solid final close.