IN: Reviews

BSO: Premiere and Two Debuts

by

Roberto Sierra

Two new faces appear on this week’s Boston Symphony bill of fare, namely those of Venezuelan-born conductor Domingo Hindoyan and Spanish cellist Pablo Ferrández, in a well-packed, substantial and variegated offering. Hindoyan, 44, who uses his Armenian matronym (patronym Garcia) is the music director of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra; having trained initially as a violinist in Venezuela’s El Sistema, he followed up with a stint in Daniel Barenboim’s West-Eastern Divan Orchestra before beginning his conducting training and career.

Hindoyan opened with the US premiere of the eminent Puerto Rican composer Roberto Sierra’s 2021 Symphony No. 6 (Sierra titles it Sinfonía), a BSO co-commission, but not before Sierra offered a brief and charming word of gratitude to the orchestra and a short explanation of why he was not going to provide an explanation of the music. He was, of course, perfectly correct not to do so, since a symphony ought to be, and in this case certainly was, self-explanatory (though each of its four movements has an evocative title). Hindoyan has form with this piece, being its dedicatee and the leader of its premiere with the RLPO. The BSO has performed Sierra, who since 1992 has taught at Cornell, on a few prior occasions going back a dozen years, mostly his 2000 Fandangos. His idiom, unsurprisingly, has been heavily influenced by Latin American sources, and significantly by those of his native Commonwealth. Unlike some of his works that adopt a highly demotic popular affect (for example, one movement of his Symphony No. 3 has been performed by the Boston Pops), the Symphony No. 6, while certainly evoking the Latin and Caribbean soundscape, has internalized it into a more abstract and edgy expression, with some resemblance to middle-period Ginastera.

The first movement, called Reflexión Urbana, is a jangly, sometimes jazzy impression of a bustling, on-the-go cityscape, in sonata form but with themes that really aren’t themes, but rather, in the modern way, exist as little motifs or gestures. The opening one, taken at breakneck speed that, suggests in the  score Hanon finger exercises on crack. The more reposeful “second subject” amounts to a minor second melodic motif. A lot of the compact working-out (in more senses than one) is borne by the expanded percussion section, to which section we confer kudos for precision and athleticism. Some of the phrasing is strongly cadential without being simplistically tonal (why settle for one key when three will do?), and to his credit Sierra lets a phrase that sounds like it wants to resolve to do so. This movement, like the whole symphony, really, puts a smile on your face as you follow its clatter to the improbable fade-out. The second movement, De Noche, suggests Bartók’s night music in annotator Robert Kirzinger’s reading, but to our thinking it invokes older imaginings of perfumed Caribbean nights as limned by Gottschalk and Villa-Lobos. Hindoyan, who had been all up-and-down analytical in the first movement, set to swaying with the breezes here.

The “scherzo” of the symphony, Huracán, may or may not have been thinking of the hurricane scene from Porgy and Bess, but it was certainly competitive, definitely a Category 3 at the minimum. We especially liked the brass glissandi as the tempest steered out of its initial fury to the first of two eyes before the final blast. The episodic finale, yclept Final, is the most demotic of the movements, sort of a rondo that swings, sways, and bops with all manner of Latin, Afro-Caribbean, jazz, and other forms of popular idiom. Big shout out to the trombones here, who richly deserved their call-out afterwards. All in all, this is a wonderful piece, which until and unless a BSO version becomes available, you should listen to here. As a composition it works—its emotions are persuasive, you know where you are, and when it’s essential you know where it’s going, as at the end, which clearly signals itself as it crests on a big D majorish swoosh. The orchestration is brilliant, the interplay of orchestral choirs masterful. Hindoyan got the finest out of the orchestra, and to ice the cake, the thunderously approving audience got to its feet only when the composer came forward.

The second of the evening’s three meaty courses, Elgar’s E Minor Cello Concerto, op. 85 (1919), welcomed the debut of Ferrández, who came to the stage with his 1689 Stradivarius “Archinto.” At 33 a frequent collaborator with violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, the US wing of his 2023-4 season sees him, together with the BSO, debuting with the orchestras of Cleveland, San Francisco, Pittsburgh, and Seattle.

The Elgar concerto, regarded as one of the pillars of the cello repertoire, is a strange beast. Like the Brahms Double Concerto, its orchestral components are sometimes briefly craggy but most often somewhat diffident, while its solo part presents interpretive challenges of its own. Conventional wisdom has it that Jacqueline du Pré owned the piece, and her classic, forward and resonant rendition is a hard act to follow even 60 years later. It forces performers to take an even harder look than they would normally do at just what Elgar was about with this concerto. Was it all about the Great War, just over when Elgar took up his pen? Was it about the gnawing sense that Elgar’s days as the great resuscitator of British music (pretty short days, having only started in 1899 with the Enigma Variations) were over or soon to be? Was it tragic, nostalgic, bitter, perplexed, backward looking, forward looking, or none of the above or all of the above?

Domingo Hindoyan (Michael J. Lutch photo)
Pablo Ferrández (Michael J. Lutch photo)

Ferrández and Hindoyan came up with a solution that was…interesting. It felt poetic, in the 19th-century sense of soulful and dreamy (think of the Schumann concerto), and augmented by a highly demonstrative body English (Spanish?) and conspicuous rubato. Of course the decisions on presentation might have nothing to do with any of the foregoing, but might have been dictated, or at least strongly influenced, by Ferrández’s instrument itself, which delivered a creamy, silken tone but which was not particularly forthcoming in projection; a perfect chamber music instrument calling for stressing the concerto’s most chamber-like elements. The first movement, begun with drama through the famous solo introduction, evolved into a fairly leisurely gait that brought out the stop-and-start disjunctions of phrasing and sections, as did the dynamic fluctuations of both soloist and orchestra. The solo bridge to the second movement especially stressed these fluctuations, bringing moments of near silence before the elfin, Mendelssohnian scherzo punctuated with sudden blasts. Rubato was the order of the day for the slow movement, with many “significant” pauses, enhanced with chamber-like textures in the orchestra’s otherwise precise accompaniment. The finale was perhaps the best-conceived of the movements, with the orchestra’s crispness offsetting (but not fighting) the silken cello line. The build to, and execution of, the fugal passage, the longest extended bit of orchestral sound, was well dramatized and nicely set up the long lament that all but closes the concerto, heartfelt and exquisitely played.

To close the proceedings Hindoyan offered up what may be the best of Dvořák’s final three symphonies, the No. 7 (fka no. 2) in D Minor, op. 70 (1885)―his statement to the world that he could be simultaneously an inheritor of the Austro-German developmental tradition and an avatar of Czech nationalism. While some of Dvořák’s work can try one’s patience with its prolixity, this compact one contains nary a surplus note or bathetic excursion. Hindoyan adopted a fairly loose-limbed approach to the tightly knit first movement that stressed the music’s earnestness but did not really convey a sense of tragedy, as some have averred to detect. He seemed most at ease in the loud major-mode passages and let the music convey its own sense of flow from one section or phrase to another without further enhancement from the podium; it was, it seemed, a concatenation of moments. Gone were the severe dynamic contrasts of the Elgar, but Hindoyan kept the rhythmic sway (musical and personal) from the Sierra. The Brahmsian wind passage opening the slow second movement came across flawlessly and with exquisite refulgence (the winds and brass were having a wonderful night); all sections delivered compelling sonorities. John Ferrillo’s oboe solo towards the end provided a transporting moment. The characteristic hemiola (characteristic for Dvořák, that is) of the scherzo’s principal theme got spot-on care from Hindoyan with clear delineation of lines, elegant and bumptious at the same time. The finale, like the opening movement, downplayed the tragic elements to create a willful and finely paced trajectory pointing to the glorious radiance of the coda—and how that shone—with the horn section aflame.

Vance R. Koven studied music at Queens College and New England Conservatory, and law at Harvard. A composer and practicing attorney, he was for many years the chairman of Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble.

4 Comments »

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

  1. Thank you for this insightful review of a concert that I wish I could have attended but will listen to on the link above.

    Boston needs more musical articles like yours.

    Comment by Mary Fillman — March 31, 2024 at 9:27 am

  2. The first piece was well crafted and showed a knowledge of orchestration, but made me feel as if someone were shouting at me for 30 minutes.
    The Elgar was unidentifiable at the onset, too much the work of the cellist, not enough of Elgar came through. Unlike the reviewer, I thought the sound of the cello shone through, even when the orchestra was playing in full force. I wonder where he was sitting. Those of us in the second balcony had no trouble hearing it. The cellist’s vibrato never changed, much too wide much of the time for my taste.
    Dvorak was sublime. Great hall, great musicians, very good conductor. It made me almost forget about the first half of the program.

    Comment by Cecilia — March 31, 2024 at 11:56 am

  3. Thanks for the clear and well-written review, Vance (and nice to read the prose of a fellow HLS grad). From my place Friday afternoon in the center of the first balcony, I shared your sense of the first two pieces. One interesting detail I noticed in the 2nd “night” movement of the Sierra was the invocation of the sound of the coqui frogs, a very common evening occurrence in Puerto Rico. A nice touch. Like you, I found the Elgar more ruminative than a coherent interpretation. I share Cecilia’s view that the Dvorak 7 was exceptional. I found that it -did- play up the tragic aspects of the piece, and that the overall performance was really tight, well-balanced and very eloquent. I have not considered the 7th (unlike Tovey) Dvorak’s best symphony until now, but Hindoyan changed my mind. I was delighted that I had driven 2 hours to attend this concert.

    Comment by David M — March 31, 2024 at 3:15 pm

  4. Another fine concert from the BSO. After a few non-standard programs, this one was fairly standard but well-chosen and well-performed. Like David M, I have not always appreciated Dvorak’s 7th, (I think even Tovey was somewhat critical of the orchestration) but Hindoyan’s rendition was quite convincing, especially the sudden minor to major ending. (Sorry to say, I did not hear the hemiolas that Mr. Vance heard in the third movement).

    Comment by George Hungerford — March 31, 2024 at 8:39 pm

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