Opening its doors with the music of Harlem’s Ellington and Strayhorn, Carlos Simon’s Four Black American Dances alongside Beethoven and Mozart, the 23-24 season of the Boston Symphony Orchestra is now officially underway. Saturday evening, jazz pianist Aaron Diehl and his trio shared Symphony Hall’s stage with concert pianist Rudolf Buchbinder and conductor Andris Nelsons in a double-feature pairing unimaginable for the orchestra’s first subscription program in 1881.
Doing homage to Henry Higginson, this season-opening concert included, as it did then, Viennese music, which the BSO’s founder greatly admired. Music of the Viennese back-to-back with the music of Black Americans spoke as much esthetically as culturally, as much of time and place. The composer of Eroica could have seen his Consecration of the House Overture play out with the Duke’s New World A-Coming as cause to celebrate. Double-feature programming may even have in some ways stimulated a newer audience and, at the same time, illumined seasoned goers. Having become a leading proponent of French music over a long string of seasons and under a series of distinguished conductors, the Boston Symphony Orchestra continues evolving yet keeping a firm grip on its revered international stature. The varied programs ahead this season point this out.
Anticipatory emotions ran throughout Beethoven’s overture as one supposes they would for music made for such occasions. After the BSO firmly pronounced Beethoven’s call to attention and fanfares royally trumpeted, the procession of strolling strings began. Later, a disappearing and reappearing bassoon, a warm and welcoming melody of violins, a pure fanfare of unison brass sounding the same note, and the final bracing roll of the tympani, these the ear especially fastened upon. Those signatory fugal and deceptive sections of the overture BSO infused with healthy energy.
With both Rudolf Buchbinder at the piano and Andris Nelsons on the podium, Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 in A Major, K. 488 further summoned up tradition. With Buchbinder’s lengthy discography being almost exclusively of German and Austrian masters, the pianist, known for his insights into Mozart, revealed his poetics of the Viennese genius. An untainted friendliness greeted, never going far into the fleeting shadows of Mozart’s sublime writing. And for the final Allegro assai, a gregarious Buchbinder embroidered Mozart in youthful celebratory fashion. All such happened in spite of Nelsons’s coming down figuratively on all fours over the course of the entire concerto. Near the close of the darker, minor-keyed Adagio, is there an appearance of fragmentation in the orchestra, and might that suggest a way into understanding the thrust of the second movement’s initial theme?
After intermission, expectant feelings ran high with Ellington’s New World A-Coming, a symphonic expression from a titan of jazz. A super-charged arrangement with instruments piling on each other, big brass band blasts, and the Aaron Diehl Trio up front on the stage of Symphony Hall, pianist Diehl, full of smiles, happy to be there. An elated Ellington runs over the course of this score, often rapturous at the thought of “no war, no greed, no categorization, no nonbelievers, where love was unconditional and no pronoun was good enough for God.” Diehl caught that spirit as he did with Ellington’s way at the piano, jaunty lush handfuls of harmonies, here solid, there pulled apart, in up-and-down lines over the black-and-white 88.
What a site to behold, Aaron Diehl and Rudolf Buchbinder together at the Steinway grand pumping up a 1946 four-handed account of Tonk (the Duke’s favorite card game) that brought joy on the audience’s faces. House lights dimmed, the stage walls lit up with fireworks-like projections that brought a change in ambience and a requisite oohing. Off the duo went, lickety-split, cartoon-like, a novelty, a side step from a society still meaningful in its own unique way.
Carlos Simon’s Four Black American Dances, a BSO co-commission, for some reason or another has legs, having already received more than a few performances by the orchestra. Short on rhythm, linear coherence, and inventiveness, it’s long on recasting clichés in one orchestral effect after another at ear-splitting levels…why?
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). www.notescape.net