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Boisterous Beethoven Kicks Off Tanglewood Season


Andris Nelsons conducting Opening Night at Tanglewood (Hilary Scott photo)

Summer’s here, promising another slate of wonderful festival performances at Tanglewood! The Boston Symphony Orchestra opened its summer season Friday with two Beethoven hits under a beaming Andris Nelsons. With smiles and flourishes Gil Shaham soloed in a stunningly melodious Beethoven Violin Concerto before the BSO demonstrated impressive might and glorious subtleties in the Eroica Symphony.

An Ozawa Hall Prelude Concert of string quartets played by BSO members opened the evening, beginning with Crisantemi (Chrysanthemums), a single slow movement (marked Andante mesto) Puccini wrote as an elegy for his friend Amadeo di Savoia. The four voices entwined in sorrowful conversation. A flowing middle section featured balladic violin airs over a pedal bass before returning to the original mood. The viola and cello ended on broken chords, an odd compositional choice which still sparkled due to the performers’ expressivity. Cellist Jonah Ellsworth heightened this delicate portrait of grief with smooth, singing sound throughout.

In Bartók’s String Quartet No. 3, ambiguous hesitations entered in clashing harmonies emerging from softly shaped counterpoint. Emphatic double-stops rang out in the hall, contrasting against moments of sacred tranquility. The following Allegro embraced a driving rhythmic energy, carried out in trills, pizzicatos, and sul ponticello gestures. Here the quartet kept tight ensemble in unisons and scurried through contrapuntal textures in perpetual motion. The music calmed down again towards hazy uncertainty, hanging on threads almost absurd in their obscurity. A loneliness pervaded the air. The coda saw the piece gain energy again up to a frantic, emphatic finish.

The Bartók traversal seemed somewhat “safe,” though still a strong showing. Some of the intensely dissonant passages demand more edge, more ferocity. Aside from some rhythmic disorder in some complex sections, the surface of the sound was pristine — but I found myself longing for a loose bow hair or even some scratches in the sound. Still, the four created impressively lush textures and warm timbres among the clashing harmonies.

In Schumann’s String Quartet in A Major, Op. 41 No. 3, violinist Victor Romanul sang the loving, crooning falling 5th “Clara” gesture with nostalgic romance. In the second theme, offbeats in the second violin and viola punctuated long lines in the cello and first violin. These melodic phrases seemed oddly disjointed, each quarter note emphasized as if outlining the beats for the offbeat accompaniment — but the rhythm, though intentionally syncopated, felt slightly misaligned. Though gently intimate, the mood turned inward to the point of almost being somewhat sedate.

The second-movement scherzo generated an ever-turning electricity throughout the variations and their varying characters. A lamenting, rocking passage gave way to a triple-time dance populated by powerful spiccato figures, eventually coming to a serene conclusion. The Adagio molto ebbed and flowed, warm, singing sonorities drawing in the audience’s ears. In the last movement the quartet really found their stride. Aside from a couple of unsettled unison entrances after small breaths, the musicians gained strength, becoming lively and insistent yet not harsh—precise while high-spirited.

Programmatically the C-sharp minor of the Puccini preceded the ambiguity of the Bartok, which resolved on an extended harmony on a C-sharp bass, and this C-sharp fell a third to the A major of the Schumann. Refined, singing voices shone in individual lines as well as collectively; the tonal throughline constituting a subtle bonus. However, the performance would have benefited from a wider range of dynamics and greater commitment to the more forceful facets. The high energy of the Schumann finale would have elevated the rest of the concert. But overall, it was a great treat to hear these wonderful musicians perform some well-planned repertoire.

In the main event at the Koussevitzky Shed, an injury to Hilary Hahn led to Gil Shaham’s stepping in as concerto soloist. Shaham walked onstage alongside Nelsons to tremendous applause, before the signature five timpani D’s brought in the orchestral introduction. At the very beginning the tempo felt a little fast, almost frantic, before slowing down to a stable level. Nelsons led Beethoven’s sudden changes in mood with aplomb, showing keen attention to small details such as note lengths and articulations. Shaham entered, rising effortlessly over the orchestra’s flowing melodies. In darker moments, the soloist and ensemble balanced well, as high solo melodies contrasted against heavy yet not overbearing bass voices. The return of the five D major hits ushered in the recapitulation jubilantly. For the cadenza, Shaham took a wild tour de force through the themes of the movement. At one point he played two themes at once in seamless polyphony. The ensemble rejoined in a sweet, almost bittersweet remembrance which grew into a joyful close.

In the inner-movement Larghetto, a prayer-like procession set a hushed, stately stage for Shaham. Solos by hornists Michael Winter and Jason Snider, clarinetist Thomas Martin, and bassoonist Richard Ranti provided mellifluous complements to the solo violin’s gliding garnishes. Nelsons created a wonderful pianissimo in a bed of sustained strings, allowing ample room for Shaham to find very quiet dynamics while still projecting across the whole audience. Innocent skips over tiptoeing pizzicato moved toward an orchestral fortissimo and the transitional cadenza. Shaham’s solo here was as lively and poised as the first, with a little moment of exchange between him and the timpani before moving attacca to the final movement.

Gil Shaham in Central Park, (Chris Lee photo)

Shaham played the theme with folklike joy, at times light and at times jolly and weighty. The soloist dashed into speedy passagework over deft string crossings. Later, he showed a tearful G minor, sorrowing yet graceful. At a transitional section, Shaham threw in an extra mini-cadenza, incorporating the horns and timpani — a very welcome surprise! The main cadenza featured expertly-tuned chordal double-stops and arpeggios in all sorts of directions and keys before beckoning the orchestra into a distant A-flat major. With a particularly well-placed portamento, Shaham returned the music to the home key. The celebratory coda gave the solo violin one last arpeggio before a triumphant finish.

The performance of the concerto showed virtuosic excellence and dramatic range from both the soloist and the orchestra. In particular, the pianissimos were extremely special; in combination with a surprisingly hushed full house, this allowed Shaham to ravish us with vanishingly soft tones which carried amazingly in the acoustic of the shed. Nelsons led the musicians in well-shaped legato lines and powerful accents. For what it’s worth, I hadn’t been a huge fan of Beethoven’s violin concerto before Shaham and the BSO made a convert of me. 

Boom! Boom! The Eroica Symphony’s iconic double E-flat major chords resonated wonderfully into the air. Flowing, lyrical lines exchanged with angular sforzando hemiolas; time stretched tastefully in some repeated-note figures. Long pianos and crescendos demonstrated great restraint before exploding in fortes and fortissimos. Beethoven’s many moods shimmered through the development’s thorny fugato, hefty hemiolas, and lyrical lament. After the “early” horn call, the recapitulation proceeded happily, with a nice moment of the low C bass extension reverberating in our seats. In the coda, uncertainty gave way to carefree grins.

The Funeral March followed step by step in elegiac solemnity. The woodwinds rang out in clear tone over the marching strings. For me, the tempo was somewhat slow as to become a little overwrought, losing some of the march aspect. But in this soundworld, Nelsons discovered many subtle turns of phrase, passionately playing out in comfortable time. Rays of light gleamed between the clouds in the major-key section. Huge trumpet fanfares cried out over the ensemble. Afterwards, a despairing fugato transitioned to a moment of reprieve in gentle string lines, then fell back into mourning. The concluding fragmentation of the theme felt as if aching, choking on words, before resigning to a final sorrow.

The scherzo bubbled and brimmed with energy, creeping out of silence in sneaky, vivacious charm until exploding in festive outburst. Snappy and mischievous, the orchestra again held back well in long pianos before large fortes. The triple horn fanfare in the trio was an expertly executed success. Aside from one wonky downbeat, the trio summoned many smiles. The scherzo returned with great fun, especially the falling duplets, coasting along and laughing up to the finish.

It looked as if the players tried to page-turn quickly to create the traditional attacca between the third and fourth movements — but not quickly enough, as claps still came. This didn’t at all dull the effect of the frenetic G-minor entrance onto the aural stage, turning into the lighthearted theme and variations. Playful pizzicato trotted in, answered by winds and timpani on emphatic B-flats. Lyrical string variations moved on to giggling triplets, and the melodic theme arrived in splendorous joy. In so many ways the mercurial variations danced on: matter-of-fact counterpoint, a bright, precise flute solo, the sunny C major, and another soaring fugato, eventually bringing in the sweet, mellow Poco andante. Rather slow, this section proceeded more like an adagio. But as in the Funeral March, the tempo allowed Nelsons to conjure a deeply nostalgic, longing pathos. The return of the running opening gesture carried in the final Presto. The last section, also somewhat slower than usual, allowed the symphony to charge forward into a great culmination of joy.

What an evening! The Boston Symphony Orchestra was truly on form. Nelsons and the instrumentalists evinced a strong commitment to Beethoven’s pioneering compositional personality by adroitly switching rapidly among all kinds of moods and humors. Principal oboist John Ferrillo and principal bassoonist Richard Svoboda shared some especially polished phrases during the evening, eloquently expressive and deftly balanced. At times the Eroica felt a little too weighty, perhaps too capital-R Romantic for a symphony coming out of the Classical era. But we winessed an undeniably exciting, revealing interpretation. The BSO showed bold artistic integrity and courage on this opening night. The strength of its musicality portends well for the Tanglewood season to come!

Julian Gau is a Boston-based freelancer and writer with a master’s degree in orchestral conducting from the Boston Conservatory. He serves as founder and conductor of the Horizon Ensemble, and resident conductor of the Chinese Music Ensemble of New York. He holds degrees in music and mathematics from Brown University.

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  1. Spot-on review of the Beethoven. The most engaging Eroica I have heard in years, and Shaham’s joy is infectious. Greetings from Philadelphia.

    Comment by Peter Kohn — July 8, 2024 at 3:13 pm

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