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Solo Trumpet and Brass Set the Spirit


Yuja Wang in Thursday night’s first costume. (Aram Boghosian photo)

Accessible and fun Makeshift Castle by Julia Adolphe — a BSO co-commission — played on contrasts between inexorable brass and diverse and quiet orchestral textures. In her introduction, the composer pithily articulated a “contrast between permanence and ephemerality,” and indeed those fateful brass sounds persisted in the memory; no subsequent artifice could shake it off. Gorgeous pianissimo muted violins, harp interludes, auditory exciting exchanges between the piano and the bongo drums: the shimmering sonic smorgasbord took advantage of the technical might of the full BSO band. But any hope for resolution awaited subsequent works due to lucky or extremely clever program structure.

Shostakovich’s two masterful piano concertos, separated by an intermission and by 24 tough years in his life, are strikingly different, though one would have been hard pressed to notice the contrast in on Saturday night. The brilliant Yuja Wang, who had played this music for many years, possesses an excellent vantage point for her shifting interpretations. It feels awkward and snooty to nitpick a pianist I admire — and one thoroughly enjoyed by both the players and the audience — but to me the glass was only half-full.

To lay my cards on the table, the C minor concerto tells a story that screams in bold capital font. There are three main characters in the drama. The Creative Spirit, played by the piano, spills its rich heritage in various quotations, starting with a vague hint at the opening phrase of the Apassionata, highly recognizable by Soviet ears ever since the days it was anointed as the most sublime kind of music by none other than Lenin. The orchestra performs the part of the Zeitgeist: nostalgic in the slow movement, rushing towards happy Communist future in the outer ones. And the solo trumpet mostly voices the mood of the archetypical Russian simpleton. In the first movement, the creative spirit comes to terms with the times, curtails the brooding and joins the dash towards the bright future. The second movement dwells on the past when both the land and the simple people were unperturbed and kind, while the finale challenges the Creative Spirit in a variety of ways. It ranges from the basic needs of survival — Beethoven’s Rage Over the Lost Penny might be a very literate hint — to the need to prove its worth in the face of the Vox Populi. The brass voice of the latter comments on creative expression with all subtlety of a ton of cast iron. Driven to distraction, the piano attempts a protest but then launches into a cadenza full to the brim with attempts to please the simple-minded listener. Not only does it employ fireworks of virtuosity, but it also feverishly incorporates every low-brow form of entertainment from circus music to tunes popular among the revolutionary rabble. The whirlwind coda drives towards a future where all contradictions would be reconciled, and every character would be a cog in a fast-moving engine. When I heard Yuja Wang play this concerto 8 years ago with Concertgebouw Orchestra under Maris Jansons, the drama unfolded in remarkable high definition.

This time however, the first movement rushed by so fast that you could only hear the speed and virtuosity. Nelsons and the orchestra kept up at the expense of missing some beats and generally channeling Keystone Cops. In the third movement, the obvious structural elements could not escape, of course, but excess speed blurred individual musical phrases beyond recognition. As a result, the torturous journey of the Creative Sprit got distilled to a simple recipe: splash your virtuosity and you will get your reward. As indeed proved to be the case last night.

The slow movement was a different matter altogether. Starting with a Chopinesque interlude, Wang intoned her long lines beautifully, without swooning, and the elegy for the golden age unfolded in its full glory. It was already heartbreaking even before Thomas Rolfs entered, but with his long solo it became downright transporting. It could hardly sound more ethereal if Rolfs’s chair slowly levitated up and offstage.

Similar ups and downs dominated the 2nd concerto. A mix of lightheartedness and warmheartedness rarely seen in Shostakovitch’s oeuvre, the 1957 composition commemorated and facilitated the Conservatory entrance exam of son Maxim, the future sensitive conductor of much of his father’s work, notably including this concerto. It is music full of childish innocence and, for the most part, presenting relatively modest technical demands. The latter can be of course compensated by the Wang’s breakneck tempi. The first movement projected an overdose of virtuosity, by varying from crazy speed to just super-fast speed, and by introducing some rubato completely unfitting to the innocent boyish march. She continued to insist on virtuosity in the finale as well, taking the episodes of the scales and Hanon exercises to a Hadron Supercollider level energies. Shostakovich, while composing the concerto, had most likely shared the piano with Maxim practicing. For the typically tense and sarcastic composer, these quotes presented rare and precious moments of humor and mirth, and it was sad to see them coerced beyond his intentions.

The second movement, among the most lyrical that Shostakovich ever wrote, started with a mix of liturgical motives and a powerful folktune. Wang played it with appropriate feeling and sparkling colors, while free of sentimentality. That was the movement to cherish and remember while looking forward to the continuing evolution of Yuja Wang.

Haydn’s ‘Military’ Symphony in G Major closed the program. In 1793-1794 London, Haydn was liberated from the more routine musical duties at the Esterhaza, appreciated and adored by the public, and safely separated by the Channel from all military theaters of the day. Composed by a genius at an apogee of his creative powers, the symphony entertained and thrilled by adding theatrical elements, Janissary sounds of cymbal, triangle, and bass drum, on top of the master’s normal treasure chest of musical ideas. The tame version of military campaign enchantingly starts with a rather bucolic call to arms via a charming tune of flute and oboes. The battle imagery, as the audience readily interpreted it in the 1794 London, unfolds in the second movement. Masterfully delivered by the BSO, the ‘battle’ elements filled the hall with fascinating sonorities, as the percussions colored the sound of the whole band. Then the trumpets — or the archangel? – sounded retreat and finally gave answer and resolution to the challenge posed by disturbing brass that kicked off the evening.

It’s worth noting that the master demanded an orchestra of 60 for the 1000-seat King’s (second) Theater, where Salomon produced his brilliant concerts. The 66 players with modern instruments in the 2,200-seat Symphony Hall made a joyful and at times visceral noise. Nelsons, perhaps cueing more than usual, managed fleet tempos and quick changes with dexterous effectiveness.

Though the Presto finale briefly clouded over with hints of warlike menace, the sun soon gleamed through the glorious crystalline sounds in the violin section led by Alexander Velinzon and Elita Kang. For one brief moment we could glorify warfare.

Victor Khatutsky is a software developer who reviewed music as a US-based freelancer for the Kommersant Daily of Moscow. He has been known for occasionally traveling long distances to catch his favorite performers.


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

  1. On Friday Wang finished her part in the third movement of the first concerto early, a beat before the trumpet and the orchestra. Few seemed bothered, however, as the almost routine standing ovation followed.

    Comment by Rob — October 2, 2022 at 2:55 pm

  2. “For one brief moment we could glorify warfare.” Or was Haydn praising, not warfare as such, but the spirited resolve of those who were willing to stake their lives for civic progress? Haydn was a close friend of the English radical Thomas Holcroft, who in 1793 helped Thomas Paine publish The Rights of Man. I had a vivid sense during Friday’s performance that Haydn was celebrating the Lafayettes of the world… In 1792, Hegel, Holderlin and Schelling jointly planted a Liberty Tree. There was a joyous embrace of ideals of the American and French revolutions.

    Comment by Ashley — October 2, 2022 at 3:35 pm

  3. Reading the program booklet after the concert, I was disappointed to find that one of my favorite features was missing: the BSO performance history of each composition, including the conductors and soloists. I’ve always been fascinated to read the list of performers who played a piece throughout the orchestra’s history, and I wonder why Robert Kirzinger has decided to eliminate this information.

    This was my first subscription program after two years’ absence, so perhaps this change is not new. Perhaps other concertgoers didn’t find it as interesting as I did.

    Also, I was surprised to get an inane email from the BSO’s customer service office, thanking me for “sharing my time” with them (meaning: attending a concert), and asking me if I had any questions or comments about the concert. What questions could I possibly have that they could answer? They also reminded me of my next concert (as if I have ever missed one in the last 40 years). The only thing missing was a rating system with one to five stars, and a question about whether I would recommend them to my friends. Please, stop this nonsense!

    Comment by George Hungerford — October 2, 2022 at 4:38 pm

  4. Ashley, I must admit that the charming tune of the flute (with two oboes) evoked for me a vague image which I now realize was the flautist (with two drummers) in the Spirit of ’76. The war’s motivation was not under scrutiny here. It was the harmonious depiction of the battle and its outcome – two hundred years or so before televised warfare.

    Comment by Victor Khatutsky — October 2, 2022 at 7:02 pm

  5. We attended the Saturday evening performance. Ms. Wang and Mr. Rolfs were virtuosic (despite Ms. Wang being drowned out by the orchestra at certain points).

    We were also struck by the omission of the performance history notes in the program book.

    Comment by Bill Blake — October 3, 2022 at 12:07 pm

  6. When you get your next email from the BSO, asking about your concert experience, tell them you would like to see the performance history notes in the program books. Based on my experience, the BSO does care about the preferences of its audience, its subscribers, and especially its donors.

    Comment by Michael Raizman — October 3, 2022 at 2:36 pm

  7. The BSO Publications Department told me that it’s onerous to list every conductor and soloist in the history of a given piece. As I understand it, the current and future practice will be to list the first BSO performance, most recent Symphony Hall performance, and the most recent BSO performance at Tanglewood, Sometimes this will result in truncation, while other times, performance history notes will actually expand a bit.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — October 3, 2022 at 3:44 pm

  8. I will miss seeing first performances in Boston by the Harvard Musical Association Orchestra.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — October 3, 2022 at 5:21 pm

  9. Last year the programs listed the first and most recent performances of every piece that was not a premiere. I too noticed this omission and would have liked to know when the Haydn was last performed. (I don’t have my program book anymore but seem to recall that the notes mentioned the concerti’s past performance histories.)

    Comment by Rob — October 3, 2022 at 7:21 pm

  10. Off-Topic, but then not:

    Does anyone know how AN will conduct the BSO in the MNahler 6th in a few weeks —

    Scherzo/Andante, or

    Since I can’t accept the latter, this will determine my driving out from Albany!


    Comment by Don Drewecki — October 3, 2022 at 8:12 pm

  11. Everyone knows about the BSO archive, yes?

    Fruhbeck 11y ago, looks like.

    As for the beginning, Michael Steinberg (note for Tennstedt performance fall 1976):

    There was a performance at the Boston Academy of Music on 8 January 1843, but given Haydn’s extreme
    popularity in this country from the 1790s on, it is safe to assume that that cannot have been the symphony’s first hearing in Boston. Carl Zerrahn conducted a performance at the Harvard Musical Association concerts in November 1868, and George Henschel gave it for the first time with the Boston Symphony Orchestra on 2 and 3 November 1883. Wilhelm Gericke and Pierre Monteux conducted it in later
    seasons. Leonard Bernstein, conducted it at Tanglewood in July 1975, but the orchestra’s most recent performances in Boston were in October 1959 under Charles Munch….

    Comment by david moran — October 3, 2022 at 8:13 pm

  12. Thank you, Lee Eiseman, for the explanation about performance history. However, I don’t see why it would be onerous to continue with the former practice. All they have to do is copy from a previous program booklet and add the name of one more conductor and soloist. How difficult is that? With most standard repertoire works, it’s just a matter of copying and pasting.

    Of course, i often look through the BSO performance archive on line, but that’s not the same as having the information in the program booklet.

    Comment by George Hungerford — October 3, 2022 at 9:23 pm

  13. Lee, it looks like the lede got lost & along with it Julia Adolphe…

    Comment by Rob Schmieder — October 3, 2022 at 11:08 pm

  14. Rob-

    Thanks for noticing the mysterious disappearance of the first paragraph. Restored!

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — October 4, 2022 at 9:28 am

  15. More on the history notes saga: It seems that a “procedural error” deleted the information that the Publications Department had intended to include in the program. So we can wait for the next issue before beginning to worry.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — October 4, 2022 at 11:31 am

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