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Two Firsts and Two Fanfares from BSO

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Steven Banks and Earl Lee (Hilary Scott photo)

BSO Assistant Conductor Earl Lee and alto saxophonist Steven Banks joined the orchestra in works of César Franck, Henri Tomasi, and Tchaikovsky at Symphony Hall Thanksgiving Friday afternoon. For Banks it was a Boston debut and for Tomasi’s concerto its first BSO performance. The Franck must appear new to many Boston audiences, though surprisingly it isn’t altogether a BSO rarity. Starting with Gericke in 1901, up through Monteux in 1923, it had been done in five seasons. Since then it’s been revived every second or third decade, most recently under Marek Janowski in 1993. These performances represent the tenth set.

With the Franck and the Tchaikovsky, showers of fanfares rang out as if to announce what surely could become one of most memorable of subscription concerts.  

Even for Franck, according to long-time annotator Steven Ledbetter, “This is a side of Franck that we rarely see” and for his contemporaries, he was only “‘slumming’ in the world of the Lisztian tone poem.” Le Chasseur maudit (The Accursed Huntsman), via Korean Canadian Lee, caught us up in a spook riddled rhythmic ride through the meadows. Trembling strings and stoutly pealing brass heralding the way, Lee, near statuesque at first then becoming ever more engaged in successive demonic crescendos, arms moving further and further outward, shuddered, though with restraint, as he led the full orchestra into the last climax. A thriller of a ride not unlike those we are accustomed to as movie-goers.

Walking onstage Steven Banks already signaled that he would assuredly and magnificently guide listeners in Concerto for Alto Saxophone in E-flat and Orchestra by Henri Tomasi. That the concerto was composed in 1949, premiered by the renown saxophonist Marcel Mule, and only now taken up by the French leaning BSO, is a mystery—the score having Gallic written all over it.

Tomasi’s “exam piece” for the Paris Conservatory skyrocketed with Steven Banks and Earl Lee co-piloting an empathic and super-charged BSO. First, so much can be said about the instrument, its multitudes of highly individualized voices in jazz. A rarer voice in the concert hall, the saxophone in the hands of a Banks furnished an oasis of luxuriant timbre. Next, his direct coursing through Tomasi’s labyrinth of a century of French musings caught hold and never let go. From lyricism to virtuosity came a cover of ineludible velvetiness. Looking backward and forward, Tomasi’s rapturous, often times inscrutable, score took Banks and Lee to ecstatic climaxes, a supersonic orchestra always engaging on equal ground. Both saxophonist and conductor were immensely compelling visually, the former lithely exuding complete rapport with the kinetics of Tomasi, the latter exhibiting sinewy energy powering the BSO.   

Yet another first, a real surprise, a supremely ethereal solo rendering of Albert Hayes Malotte’s The Lord’s Prayer. The melody unfolded slowly, purely, one note at a time wafting through a reverent Hall, as though coming from another world; listeners would gradually come to recognize the old standard sung at weddings and church services. This encore, truly a one-of-a-kind.     

Following intermission, sharper fanfares rallied from Symphony No. 4 in F Minor, Opus 36, Tchaikovsky’s famous work, emblematic especially to those fortunate to have encountered it during childhood. The Boston Symphony orchestra leapfrogged innocents revisiting that music and into what symphony really means. Steadfastly holding our attention to the Tchaikovsky, Lee, as before with the Franck, conducted with close-to-the-body eloquence giving way at extremes, from putting his baton aside to wave on passages of dreamy strings or gliding winds to gyrating about the podium to stir up exhilarating passages of brass or percussion. The instruments of the BSO arose in their full glory. Just what you would have wished for: dizzying speeds from all around the orchestra; catchy solos from the woodwinds; and those spinetingling episodes from trumpets to tuba, cymbals to timpani. The sudden burst of the percussion opening the fourth movement on top of the enticing plucked strings settling into barely heard notes ending the third, just one of uncountable amazements.   

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

3 Comments »

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

  1. Long term fans of the BSO should be very familiar with the Franck, as the BSO made a dynamite recording of the piece in 1962 with Charles Munch. RCA has issued it on CD on at least 4 occasions, not counting the complete box set of Munch’s RCA/Columbia recordings.
    A concert recording from 1959 (not nearly as good as the RCA recording) was included in the BSO Symphony Hall Centennial set. I didn’t attend the concert, but I assume Robert Kirzinger included all this information in the program book.

    Comment by Brian Bell — November 25, 2023 at 5:20 pm

  2. “Starting with Gericke in 1901, it was done nearly every ten years up through Monteux in 1920.” Whoa if true! nearly every ten!

    Comment by Anthony — November 26, 2023 at 9:09 am

  3. Starting with Gericke in 1901, up through Monteux in 1923, it had been done in five seasons. Since then it’s been revived every second or third decade, most recently under Marek Janowski in 1993. These performances represent the tenth set.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — November 26, 2023 at 10:15 am

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