IN: Reviews

Bach Angles, Rounds, A Toast!


A kind of party at BSO’s opening night blissed out the mass of music-goers with a new and convenient start time of 7:30 Thursday evening at Symphony Hall. American pianist Awadagin Pratt made his BSO debut in fellow American composer Jessie Montgomery’s Rounds written for him, and he angled Bach according to his own muse. Music Director Andris Nelsons began with music belatedly celebrating him with a fanfare by BSO favorite John Williams. The closer, Holst’s popular interplanetary orchestral expedition, once again reminded us of Star Trek’s film score.

Mostly for brass, Williams’s three-minute A Toast! (2014) would add little to the fanfare repertoire. Being a fanfare,  had the brass players been standing rather than sitting, that, at least, would have given some visual satisfaction. The brilliance of the BSO brass contrasted refreshingly with a small contingent of strings, though that section of the orchestra by comparison sounded surprisingly bland for the most part. Attention thus focused mostly on soloist Awadagin Pratt in J.S. Bach’s Piano concerto in A Major, BWV 1055.

More specifically, as is usually the case with J.S. Bach, approaches give us an immense range of understandings, from period recreations to breakaways, harpsichord to piano. Though the well-traveled 56-year-old Pratt has performed several times in Boston, he is probably a newcomer to many.

Jessie Montgomery and pianist Awadagin Pratt (Aram Boghosian photo))

What brings this pianist to so many venues—from The White House to Sesame Street—may very well be an American artist following his own muse. Some might quarrel with detail; others might find Pratt’s muse taking longer, bigger breaths. The top-heavy BSO strings would ultimately put the spotlight on the formidable, seasoned, individualized, and ruminating playing of Pratt. If the string section lacked affect, that allowed Pratt all the more emotional range. Toward the end of the Larghetto, his phrasing tugged at the heartstrings. Other “investigations” such as this brought a personal and inspiring outlook to Bach—broadening ours.   

Appearing onstage, Jessie Montgomery introduced Rounds, which she wrote over two years in collaboration with Pratt. Montgomery dedicated the performance of this true musical offering to her late mother who “lived just down the street for 15 years.”

Montgomery further likened her work to Row, Row, Row Your Boat, drawing appreciative chuckles. Or, she continued, you could follow along thinking of the migration of birds, their leaving and returning. Pratt joined a full complement of BSO strings, now colorized, responding to this finely and imaginatively created 15-minute work. Departing from the self-conscious and mental calculations of so much new music around these days, Montgomery and Pratt held fast to our human nature—away with that over-thinking! Instead, we encountered a naturalness at once admitting a genuine kindness and a generous optimism. Together, composer and pianist deeply touched a nerve long numbed by the contemporary music scene. 

Nelsons completely astonished with an array of gestures meshing with the multitudinous movements of the Planets. In high spirits Nelsons took to the English composer Gustav Holst, at first appearing a little like the Hulk. Hunched over, the BSO conductor elicited a knock-your-socks off, veritable Bringer of War—Mars. When is the last time we have heard our venerable orchestra in such extremes? From near-deafening blasts in Mars and Jupiter to a true and vanishing pianississimo.

In Neptune, the Mystic, the wordless chorus of a dozen sopranos and altos of the Lorelei Ensemble (Beth Willer, Artistic Director), could be heard from somewhere outside the hall. But from where? Finally, their ethereal voices drifted incredibly to silence.

David Patterson, Professor of Music and former Chair 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).

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