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.
9 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]
We were at Thursday night’s concert. It seemed to me this was a mismatch of orchestra and conductor. There appeared to be no chemistry between them – and that definitely came across in the performances. At the end of the evening, not one member of the BSO applauded the conductor. They certainly applauded their colleagues when individuals were recognized by the conductor. But they were stoic when given the chance to applaud Shani as they so often do when there is mutual appreciation. I suspect Shani’s heavy hand overall just did not sit well with the orchestra.
The performance of the Prokofiev Symphony came across as utterly joyless. And this is a joyful symphony that charms and winks at you. Not Thursday night. I believe the orchestra gave Shani what he wanted. But it came across as leaden and never took off. In contrast, Andris Nelsons gave us a memorable performance when he conducted this a few years ago. Enough said.
Jean-Yves Thibaudet was the star of the evening. He’s quite simply one of the best pianists out there, and it’s always a joy to hear him. I’ve never once heard him play on automatic pilot, and he certainly wasn’t doing so last night. I have never heard the Saint-Saens 5th piano concerto live before, and it was quite enjoyable. While not my favorite of the 5 piano concertos S-S wrote, this was fun to hear and I hope we hear it again soon. And I especially look forward to the next concert with Thibaudet!
As for the Rachmaninoff, again it suffered from Shani’s heavy hand. Yet this is a piece that can certainly withstand that a lot more than the Prokofiev could, and I did enjoy the performance. But it won’t stick in my memory as so many memorable performances have over the years. And perhaps this is not entirely fair because in my ears I still hear superior past performances that I was so fortunate to enjoy live from Martha Argerich in a 2-piano version with Nelson Freire many years ago (as well as having her recording from Lugano), and even more so a scorching live performance from Charles Dutoit and the Philadelphia Orchestra live at Saratoga well over a decade ago which was positively electric. Shani’s performance wasn’t remotely in either one’s league.
I suspect that if the decision gets made by the orchestra whether Lahav Shani is asked back again for a concert in the coming seasons, we will not be seeing him again soon. And that would not be the wrong decision.
Comment by Mogulmeister — February 17, 2023 at 6:40 pm
I was at the concert this afternoon and must have head a much different program than Mogulmeister! BSO was applauding Shani for his Prokofiev, both him and Thibaudet for the the Saint-Saens Piano Concerto. I
much prefer Victor’s review.
Comment by RSB19 — February 17, 2023 at 7:57 pm
In response to Mogulmeister, I thought that Thursday’s concert was a decent subscription performance, with no special rapport between conductor and soloist, or between conductor and orchestra. As for the concerto, M. Thibaudet was his usual brilliant self, but from my very good first-balcony seats, it seemed that the piano was drowned out by the orchestra for much of the time. I had never heard the piece “live” before, so I don’t know if this is typical. But I think a more experienced conductor would be able to provide an accompaniment that was not constantly too loud.
There was a time when Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances was a novelty, but now that it is regularly played by the BSO and other orchestras, we can be a little fussy about what we hear. I found this performance to be a little disappointing. Even the beautiful saxophone passage seemed a little “off” rhythmically. Was it the conductor’s fault or the sax player’s? It just didn’t unfold as smoothly as it usually does. (I realize everyone can have an off day). However, it’s always a pleasure to hear this great piece.
Not every concert can be brilliant, and this one was certainly enjoyable. The audience (with a lot of younger listeners (certainly younger than I am!) was enthusiastic about each piece on the program, so Mr. Shani will probably be invited to conduct again.
By the way, I’m happy to see that Robert Kirzinger has restored the listing of prior performances in the program booklet. i did not like the self-service suggestions (“do your own research if you want more information”) that i saw a few months ago.
Comment by George Hungerford — February 17, 2023 at 8:31 pm
I was at Thursday’s performance and thoroughly enjoyed the lusciously uncomplicated program.
I, too, was gratified to see more than a few younger faces. Lahav Shani’s frequently angular, abrupt movements struck me as a mite peculiar, but certainly well suited to the spikiness of Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony.
In the Saint-Saëns Fifth Piano Concert (which I’ve never heard live before) I felt the balance between Thibaudet’s piano and the orchestra was particularly copacetic, melding into a unity where both remained distinct: this from my vantage point, Row X in the Orchestra.
Their account of Rachmaninoff’s gaudy, galumphing Symphonic Dances was wonderfully rumbustious. All things considered, an evening well spent.
Comment by David Derow — February 17, 2023 at 10:40 pm
I was there Thursday, and I liked what I’ve heard. Far from heavy-handed, Shani was understated, yet expressive, sincere and effective. One of the best BSO concerts in recent memory.
Comment by Iris Berent — February 18, 2023 at 7:53 am
I found this short interview with Lahav Shani on the WRTI website. The interview took place in 2018.
WRTI is the de facto classical music radio station in Philadelphia.
Comment by Craig Maynard — February 18, 2023 at 1:13 pm
Still buzzed from Saturday night’s riveting performance to a full house. I bought my ticket on Thursday, and found myself in line behind several key BSO players who had just come out of morning rehearsal and were purchasing Saturday tickets for friends. ‘Nuff said.
Comment by Rob Schmieder — February 18, 2023 at 11:25 pm
It’s always impressive to see the machine at work.
Comment by Mogulmeister — February 19, 2023 at 8:22 am
I have been hoping that someone would respond to the first comment above, from M-m. I, and others, I have learned, think his comments were off the mark. Not on the Thibaudet. Yes, he is a superb pianist. BUT…
M-m calls the Prokofiev “joyless”? When my husband and I were in the boonies at the USMC base in North Carolina, we had a few recordings. The “Classical Symphony” was one of them, and I played it often. This performance by Shani was worlds more superior—witty, punchy, occasionally sardonic, and beautifully played. Surely the conductor had something to do with that?
As for the Rachmaninoff, where was the “heavy hand”? The performance, it seems to me, was complementary to Thibaudet’s take on it. Mutually supportive.
Most serious, however, was M-m’s comment, “…whether Lahav Shani is asked back again for a concert in the coming seasons, we will not be seeing him again soon. And that would not be the wrong decision.” That is NOT what I and countless others think, and, I have learned, neither do some of the musicians.
Comment by Bettina A Norton — February 22, 2023 at 6:01 pm
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