Friday, July 20, 8:30 pm, Shed
Boston Symphony Orchestra
Christoph Eschenbach, conductor
Dan Zhu, violin
Bernstein – Serenade (after Plato’s Symposium) for violin and orchestra
Tchaikovsky – Symphony No. 6, “Pathétique”
I was looking forward to this concert to renew my acquaintance with this less familiar, but interesting work of Leonard Bernstein’s and in the expectation that Christoph Eschenbach and the BSO would give us an interesting “Pathétique” after Myung-Whun Chung’s fascinating, rather eccentric reading of last November.
Leonard Bernstein wrote in a variety of manners and showed a variety of influences. None of them have convinced a great many people over the years except his Broadway show music, which seems to have established itself among a broad audience. I had hoped that the Serenade (after Plato’s Symposium) might show a sophisticated side of the composer which was somehow close to the special gifts he had, but, alas, it is another shallow show piece, which doesn’t get to the heart of anything, much less Plato’s dialogue. As Bernstein almost literally states in his text about the work, quoted in the program, it has more to do with the New York party scene than with the ambiguous and disturbing undercurrents of its nominal original. It is a polished, if verbose tone poem with many references to its inspiration in Richard Strauss and Paul Hindemith. It sports a neat violin obbligato, which the truly brilliant young violinist, Dan Zhu, dispatched with assurance and polish. His playing was the best thing about this concert, not that Bernstein’s Serenade isn’t fun to listen to. Eschenbach and the BSO gave an elegant contribution, much more than an accompaniment, but I’m not sure the conductor was always getting to the point of the music, which is in itself elusive.
The “Pathétique” began with the familiar tragic gestures and tenebrous sonorities, very rich and vivid, and I followed along, thinking myself in safe hands, as the slow introduction unfolded, very broad and portentous. However, as the exposition (Allegro non troppo) began to run its course, I began to notice emphasized details, mostly figurations in the inner voices of the winds, which seemed to have have little reason beyond a bit of random color and excitement. Besides this, bars went on without any particular emphasis or selection among the voices or phrases. By the recapitulation, I had a distinct feeling that Eschenbach didn’t have any particular plan mapped out in the “Pathétique,” only random stresses, a heavy beat, and bloated sonorities. Our journey through the first movement had not really taken us anywhere in particular. The waltz in 6/4 time had no grace at all, and the march was aggressive, but leaden. By then I was decidedly impatient and bored, and the sorrowful rhetoric of the last movement failed to convince me, although there were a couple of fine darking moments, which were carefully calculated by Mr. Eschenbach and so deliberately expressed, that not even the most fidgety child could miss it. The textures were quite clear, aided by Mr. Eschenbach’s decision to place the three trombones and tuba in a sort of quarantine, some six or eight feet behind the violas and second violins, but the colors were almost porridgy in their thickness. The orchestra produced these strange sounds, which were not unattractive at first hearing, but which built up into an indigestible stew. The best performances of the “Pathétique” are obsessively concentrated and seemingly inevitable.
If Eschenbach had simply let the orchestra play, it wouldn’t have been so bad, but he was constantly imposing his own strict beat and his own irrelevant accents. The musicians seemed bored out of their minds, playing on autopilot. They politely did as they were told, but without enthusiasm or even interest. Ensemble was occasionally lax.
My expectations were perhaps high, after the splendid Stravinsky/Brahms concert of last Sunday, under Andris Nelsons. The orchestra was entirely with him heart and soul, and miraculous things seemed to happen in their rapport with him and in the rapport he established among them. I heard incredibly subtle interactions in the exchanges among the sections and in the silences of the rests and pauses. This really showed the profound musicianship and artistry of the Boston Symphony. Perhaps there’s a partnership there not unlike Munch’s in the glory days.