Israeli pianist and conductor Lahav Shani made his debut with BSO Thursday in an evening of shamelessly delectable easy listening beginning with Prokofiev’s First Symphony.
Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony — a perfect fare for a first appearance of a young star — started off briskly, with the orchestra probing and quickly finding the ironically wide dynamic range. Shani appropriately emphasized the beauty of quiet second theme, as the violins articulated it beautifully. The movement forged ahead with a nice balance of drive and wit. At about two thirds of capacity, the orchestra delivered polished clarity.
While it would be silly to argue with well-documented case that Prokofiev was trying to stir up trouble and commotion in his ingratiating if revisionist classicism, perceptions do change. With all the anxieties and sarcasms of the 20th century separating us from the 1917 premiere, nothing but sunny exuberance and wholesome fun come across to the modern audience. . And that was exactly what we heard on Thursday.
Jean-Yves Thibaudet returned to Symphony Hall for Camille Saint-Saëns’s Fifth concerto, which raced forward with abandon, quite suitable for this putative travelogue. It could even provoke analogies with revenge travel of today: so much to catch up, so little time — but it streamed forward with adept lockstep between the orchestra and the soloist. The piano passages sounded passionate without losing clarity and transparency.
The ‘Egyptian’ themes of the second movement struck me as thoroughly idiomatic. While the concerto may not be immune to modern accusations of orientalism and cultural appropriation, it also came across as a perceptive diary of a devoted traveler to Africa. Thibaudet succeeded in bringing across the overall mood, which occasionally resembled the musical sensibility of a muezzin call. The finale energetically rushed back to the starting line, bursting with joy and new impressions, and the piano ecstatically exploded out of its boundaries in the over-the-top coda. Turn off the goddamn newscast, restore your sanity with programming of this kind.
Symphonic Dances, Rachmaninoff’s swan song, emerged at a dark moment, with resonance to our days. In 1939, Eugene Ormandy felt obliged to publicly defend his partnership with the master, just as he fought to continue programming German classics despite Hitler. And no wonder: Rachmaninoff wore his Russianness on his sleeve at the short but infamous period when his homeland partnered with Nazi Germany to divvy up Eastern Europe, annexed what is now Western Ukraine, and attacked Finland.
The first movement opened with a relentless rhythmic motion, a march of modernity as it were, which paused to leave room for private emotions, as oboes and clarinets set the melancholic stage and then the alto sax entered with a gorgeous and abashedly Russian melody. From this moment, the composer’s desire for a choreographic collaboration became tangible: one could easily visualize a couple of pairs of ballet slippers tiptoeing across stage. But I also wondered how consciously Rachmaninoff sought paths to the hearts of his American audience by leaving the main Russian theme to a sax, an instrument with strong local connotations. However conscious, he succeeded: all conflicts disappeared in this show, run by the winds; rumblings of the inevitable Dies Irae theme later in the first movement hardly disturbed the peace.
As the first theme re-emerged and developed into a powerful tutti, it delivered a vision of harmonious modernity with a soul. This orchestra, extended to nearly full capacity of its string sections, magnificently crested its wall of sound. Earlier in the evening, I had noticed a few listeners under the voting age in the hall — now I wished there would be a lot more, for the purpose of bolstering their civic optimism. Occasions of large groups of people collaborating so marvelously are becoming exceedingly rare. Shani conducted the whole program without a baton or a score. His guidance mostly came in broader gestures and drove not only the general mood and the phrasing. He also seemed very effective in building those powerful swells of sound.
The Tempo di valse movement commenced with a fanfare of brass and a pizzicato strings oom-pah-pah introduction, totally suitable for a Soviet-made historical drama, except that this valse teased and failed to materialize, until oboes reluctantly got it established, after which it developed into its full nostalgic glory. According to Harlow Robinson’s notes, Michel Fokine, after hearing the composer’s run through, had expressed misgivings about the dance-ability of this valse, and it’s not hard to see his point: how would one dance this level of heartache? Incidentally, I began to wonder what kind of ‘Russian element’ Fokine initially worried about in the Dances. If those had dissipated upon encounter with melodic riches of the score, they certainly materialized in the third movement.
It started in a spooky mood culminating in bells tolling 12, with nocturnal if not outright demonic connotations, and then a built-up to the Dies Irae. Despite the nostalgic elements lingering for a while, we soon found ourselves in the midst of an episode of maximal Russianness: being caught in a quarrel between Rachmaninoff and his Deity. Gorgeous playing of BSO not-withstanding, the movement turned anti-cathartic. The harmonious wall of sound, only a few minutes old, turned into a climax of different nature, as Rachmaninoff’s pious seriousness produced a finale of painfully bombastic character. Dies Irae overcame, but in a unique Russian style. Movement-wrapping variations on that theme made me think of repeating cycles of sincere repentance followed by no less sincere sin. Shani and BSO delivered this tribute to the mysterious Slavic Soul in a powerful way that would have pleased the composer.
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.