Boston Symphony Orchestra
November 10, 2011, Thursday 8:00 pm
Myung-Whun Chung, conductor
Garrick Ohlsson, piano
Weber ‑ Overture to Der Freischütz
Barber ‑ Piano Concerto
Tchaikovsky ‑ Symphony No. 6, Pathétique
Many things go toward the making of great conducting—knowledge of music and of how people play instruments; ability to communicate to orchestra musicians, through both technical and less tangible means; the inspiring of respect; a way with audiences and a sense of what will reach them. Much else, no doubt. Most important, in the end, is vision—a considered and impassioned sense of just how a work of music should sound and move and take shape, with a determination to elicit this from an orchestra and put it across to listeners. Here we go beyond the playing of a score, however expert and in however proper a style. The piece and the performance speak, every detail a part of the whole, and all proceeding from a deep human center. Myung-Whun Chung brought the Boston Symphony Orchestra to this level of performance with the Tchaikovsky “Pathétique” Symphony in the current series of concerts.
Chung conjured a wonderful rich, bleak sound from the strings, beginning low and dark, and had them achieve marvelous layering and rise to great, never coarse, intensity as the piece progressed. Bassoonist Richard Svoboda and clarinetist William Hudgins soon emerged as heroes of the occasion. The trombones and other brass played gorgeously. Timpanist Timothy Genis maintained a quiet tension under everything, at times flaring out, of course, in the big part this piece gives to his instrument. All the orchestra seemed to be sitting on the edge of their seats, focusing intently on the conductor and the way he was having the work unfold. Chung gave us a first movement that sounded entirely fresh and original—one was constantly hearing new things, dissonances and odd colors emerging, rhythms interrupted, unnerving alterations of light and dark. Mahler, Debussy, even Schoenberg, were in the air. And there were moments of time-stopped all but silence, as if a void had opened. Everything took an uncanny inevitable emotional shape entirely right for Tchaikovsky’s turbulent feelings of now despair, now desperate lyricism, which he has worked into his own peculiar, stressed version of classical sonata form. The middle movements are whistling in the dark, though extraordinarily beautiful and inspired whistling. The Allegro con grazia “waltz” in 5/4 rhythm dances off into the world of the Tchaikovsky ballets, but here properly kept its all-is-not-quite-right and muted quality. The third movement manic fast march that ensues always garners applause, as if the symphony has ended. Here the movement was played brilliantly and reached an explosive ending, but the applause was only a sprinkling, because Chung was maintaining such a strong sense of how the piece must go forward—into that black hole where the final Adagio lamentoso starts and where it, and the entire piece, will end.
The program had opened with Weber’s Overture to Der Freischütz. This was fine, perhaps a little big, a little coarse. There followed the Samuel Barber Piano Concerto, featuring pianist Garrick Ohlsson. This concerto, dating from 1962, is one of Barber’s best pieces, modernist but highly listenable, concentrated, full of invention for both piano and orchestra, alternately anguished, lyrical, and insouciantly charming. Ohlsson is a marvelous pianist, with a big sound, able to play anything, to render any kind of passage work, any mood that is called for. He, Chung, and the orchestra worked in the same spirit here, but it was a little too light and detached a spirit. They made the piece sound French or Stravinskian, and it “showed its seams” more this way—one was aware of the composer cogitating and crafting, rather than pouring his heart out. Barber has his French side, but all his best music has a raw, committed, emotional strain akin to the great Adagio for Strings. Had this strain been more felt here (and the Weber Overture more moody and mysterious), the programming with the Tchaikovsky would have worked better.
The Tchaikovsky was the best thing that has occurred at the Boston Symphony so far this season, and, one is tempted to say, since James Levine was last there working in top form. Aren’t we looking for a Music Director?
For other reviews—all enthusiastically favorable—of Myung-Whun Chung’s work in the Berkshire Review, see: