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Soothing Optimism Obtained


The young and starry-eyed cohort ― likely boosted by the fan club of the star pianist Seong-Jin Cho ― noticeably reduced the average age of the audience in the Shed on Saturday night. Starting with Mozart’s K271 concerto, the evening shaped up in the mood of soothing normalcy and great expectations. Susanna Mälkki, the worldly chief conductor of Helsinki Philharmonic, took the stand.

One could argue that the list of Mozart’s great masterpieces had started with this concerto, composed by the 21-year-old in Salzburg, as a vehicle for a young French pianist Victoire Jenamy, Wolfgang’s Viennese social confrere. But her father, the great dance-master Jean-Georges Noverre by that time had climbed to just about the top of Parisian musical establishment. It’s tempting to speculate that the young composer could envision a further expansion of his audiences. Whatever the motivation, he penned a wondrously innovative and emotional concerto.

Cho, by now well known to Boston and Lenox audiences, took off in the opening Allegro with barely perceptible acceleration ahead of the orchestra, giving him opportunities for a more varied and breathing line, while Mälkki humored him and caught up without fuss. Mozart’s familiar cadenza of the first movement sounded suitably proto-romantic but peaceful. The slow movement started with very well-articulated sospiri of the strings, bringing up memories of the other bookend of this amazing creative arch: the opening of Mozart’s Requiem. The cantabile flowed soulfully and tastefully from Cho’s fingers, while chromaticisms of the cadenza came across as uncannily modern. The Rondeau third movement’s theme drove forward energetically, with great wistfulness, foreshadowing the many happy travel tunes of the coming Romantic century. We felt very much on board with this infectious mood of the of a young musician going places. Maybe it was the career of the young French woman that we heard blossoming — and certainly that of her young Salzburg friend. Come to think of it, the prospect of hearing more of the powerful and poised Korean pianist also contributed.

The obligatory encore, an understated rendition of Chopin’s Nocturne Op. 9 No. 2 in E-flat Major, commenced before the audience settled down; last-word energetic applause ensued before the final harmonies had evanesced.

Accompanied by a fairly well-behaved rain pattering on the roof of the Shed, BSO and Mälkki embarked after intermission on Bartok’s 1943 Concerto for Orchestra, another optimistic masterpiece ― or so we would like to argue, despite the circumstance of its creation by a gravely ill composer in the midst of a horrific war. Commissioned by the Koussevitzky Foundation and premiered by the BSO, it had emerged as one of the composer’s most classically minded and traditional works. His penchant to bring back the Hun in Hungarian hardly broke through.

Susanna Mälkki earlier at Symphony Hall (Winslow Townson photo)

The traditionally symphonic first movement gave the stage to a milder version of the great continental tradition, with Angst growing through development and into the recapitulation. The power of the fate still ruled, a venerable myth tracing from Beethoven’s Fifth to Shostakovich’s 7th, whose mind-crushing relentlessly repeated theme has been fresh in Bartok’s memory. 

It was with the arrival of the scherzando Game of the Couples, the playful second movement, that the composer’s plan to recover the musical world emerged, along with a clear explanation of the composition’s title. It turned out so many musical ideas survived, that fate be damned. To believe it, you just needed listen to the drama of diverse sonorities coming from the sections. BSO showed itself equal to the task, with the bassoons, then oboes and then flutes and trumpets taking the spotlight in turn. What a glorious parade of diversity of life! Mälkki choreographed this dance with verve and energy. The third movement, a nostalgic though rather gloomy elegy, also kept the voices of the sections lively and independent; hope flourished with them.

The 4th movement, Intermezzo Interrotto, started with the most pastoral of the melodic material. The promised interruption came quickly, becoming the most recent carrier of the malaise to be smacked. Grotesque trombone comments on the quotation of Lehar’s ‘Da geh’ich zu Maxim’ tune expressed composer’s attitude unambiguously. There followed a more explicit quote of Shostakovich’s elaboration of that tune in the Leningrad Symphony. Clearly, it was not just the original Lehar ditty that Bartok was seeking a reprieve from.

Ultimate optimism burst forth, not, though, from shaking off Shostakovich, but rather, in the Presto last movement, from a tour de force of orchestral sound, including a bona fide fuga. Fate-shmate: just listen to the buildup and the final burst of the glorious noise that a stage packed with full forces of the BSO can produce. That surely could fill one with optimism. And it did.

Victor Khatutsky has written for the Intelligencer since 2014. He also interests himself in genomics and the poetry of Boris Pasternak.

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