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The Winter of Our Discontent: Classical Music in Boston 

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Andris Nelsons
Andris Nelsons

As everyone in New England knows, this winter was one long slog. But significant musical events actually got to take place, and some of these have been exceptional. But many have been frustrating and disappointing.

Topping my A-list are two concerts sponsored by the Celebrity Series of Boston. Pianist Leif Ove Andsnes blew into town with his young Mahler Chamber Orchestra for an evening of three Beethoven concertos, for which he appeared as both soloist and conductor (February 22). Despite the weather, Jordan Hall was unusually full, and the event was deeply satisfying. The Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 2 (actually his first) had a sparkling sense of play, especially in the finale. And the Fourth Piano Concerto, Beethoven’s greatest and most interior, had a lovely if understated eloquence, not quite taking in the composer’s confrontations with the abyss. The orchestra, like Boston’s sadly departed Discovery Ensemble, is made up of dazzling young virtuosi with an uncanny unity of phrasing and rhythm, and they seemed to be completely tuned in to both what Andsnes asked from them and to his own combination of vigor and elegance. In between, came the Third Piano Concerto, Beethoven’s first mature concerto, a major foreshadowing of his heroic works to come, and this was thrilling, taking full advantage of what the players and their leader/soloist wanted to do. They had me at the edge of my seat. If it’s possible to stop breathing and breathe heavily at the same time, then that’s what I was doing.

More recently (March 29), the Celebrity series gave us the Georgian violinist Lisa Batiashvili, who is this year’s artist in residence with the New York Philharmonic, and British pianist Paul Lewis, who is rapidly becoming a Boston favorite (like Dubravka Tomšič a decade ago, playing recitals and appearing with the BSO—why hasn’t the Celebrity Series invited her back?). Beginning with a Schubert recital Lewis performed for the Harvard Musical Association four years ago, Bostonians already know what a superior Schubert player Lewis is. He and Batiashvili led off with two Schubert pieces (In the early Grand Duo and later, even more extroverted Rondeau Brillant, the two players made a vivid case for ambitious lesser Schubert.

In 2009, Batiashvili, still in her twenties, made a great impression in her BSO debut, playing the tuneful second of Prokofiev’s violin concertos under Charles Dutoit. I admired both her gorgeous playing and her insistence on actually playing the music instead of wallowing in it (no professional-virtuoso lunging or hair-tossing). A back injury forced her to cancel her next BSO appearance, under the NY Phil’s Alan Gilbert, two years ago. But she certainly seems to have recovered. In the Grand Duo, I was worried about her tone being too smooth and unvaried, but the propulsive and more daring Rondeau proved that concern irrelevant. She and Lewis seemed a match made in heaven.

A Bach violin sonata, in which Lewis’s accompaniment (if he played in it at all) wouldn’t have amounted to much, was scratched in favor of two solo pieces—a Telemann D-major Fantasie for violin and Busoni’s piano arrangement of Bach’s meditative chorale “Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland.” But as lively (Telemann) and moving (Bach/Busoni) as these were, they were just warm-ups for the extraordinary Beethoven G-major sonata (Opus 96, No. 10) that followed. In his last violin sonata, it’s as if Beethoven, like Mozart in his last piano concerto, has nothing more to prove. Everything unfolds both inevitably and playfully. The violin and piano are in perfect accord, in tender conversation. Not lovers but dearest friends. And Batiashvili and Lewis, if they were demonstrating anything, were providing an object lesson in egoless co-operation and intimacy—responding to each other, listening to each other, teasing each other, completing each other’s thoughts. After their New York appearance at Alice Tully Hall the following day, the New York Times critic found their performance of the Beethoven too tentative, too lacking in ego. Of course, I didn’t hear that performance, but unless it was radically different from what they did in Boston, I would beg to disagree. It was just about everything I ever want chamber music to be.

I think the audience agreed with me. Batiashvili and Lewis acknowledged the applause with two encores, Joseph Joachim’s arrangement of Brahms’s uninhibited Hungarian Dance No. 2 in D-minor, and—the perfect finish—Fritz Kreisler’s sentimental indulgence to the sorrow of Viennese love, “Liebesleid.”

Benjamin Zander
Benjamin Zander

In February, Benjamin Zander and the Boston Philharmonic provided another winter pleasure, bringing to Boston for the first time the lovely Polish-born soprano Aga Mikolaj in Richard Strauss’s autumnal Four Last Songs (she and the orchestra were especially touching in the third of them, “Beim Schlafengehen,” the composer’s quietly aching wish for final sleep) and Mahler’s spring-like Fourth Symphony with its child’s view of heaven, a piece few conductors in the world get closer to the heart of than Zander. Mikolaj found an eloquent balance between the visionary and the childlike in the last-movement song. The program began optimistically with another Strauss, Johann’s Voices of Spring, with Zander’s rocket-like build-ups and the enchanting way he let the descending phrases float gently down like the wayward sparks of fireworks.

This concert also marked the last time principal oboist Peggy Pearson would be performing with the orchestra. Pearson started with Zander when he was still conducting the Boston Civic Symphony in the 1970s. A longtime member of Emmanuel Music, she’s also been directing her own series, Winsor Music, for nearly 20 years. For Boston music lovers, Pearson’s plangent tone and eloquent phrasing spun out over long breaths is one of the most recognizable and cherished sounds.

Boston Philharmonic’s last concert of the season (April 19) was another memorable one. Perhaps as a preparation for Zander’s deeper plunge into Wagner with Act III of Siegfried with his Youth Philharmonic Orchestra, he began the program with Wagner’s Tannhaüser Overture, which after a slightly non-committal start grew increasingly intense in its opposition of spiritual and sensual forces. This was followed by a brilliant and sensitive solo performance by 20-year-old Jonah Ellsworth, principal cellist of the Youth Philharmonic, in Saint-Saëns’s First Cello Concerto (not the most riveting piece of music in the world). I thought I saw Ellsworth return after intermission to fill out the cello section in Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, a work Zander was returning to for the first time since 2006. The piece is a warhorse—one of the most familiar in the symphonic repertoire. But from the very first notes, Zander and his players seemed directly plugged in to the Berlioz pulse. It came instantly to life. Nothing seemed rushed, but nothing languished either. The hero’s memory of his beloved wove inevitably into violent phantasmagoria then back to tender memory. The phrasing was convincing, fresh, and human. Zander was like Scheherazade, rapt in spinning out this literally “fantastic” story of love and paranoia. In the ensuing movement, “A Ball” (my favorite part of the Symphonie), Zander followed up on his recent Johann Strauss with another exhilarating waltz, with its subtly teasing suspensions (the device of the Luftpause—the intuitive, unwritten pause for air). At least one person had to restrain himself from applauding in the wrong place. The delicate pastorale of the “Scene in the Country” (elegant wind playing) soon morphed into a chillingly relentless “March to the Scaffold” (the hero’s nightmare of murdering the beloved and punishment for it) and manic “Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath.” An exciting and gripping performance. Zander stopped the applause at the end by asking the audience to acknowledge Thomas Hill, retiring after 22 years as principal clarinet.

At Emmanuel Music, much loved for its Bach, music director Ryan Turner led his first St. John Passion (March 21), and while it may still be a work in progress, it was also a moving occasion. The chorus and, after a slightly shaky start, the orchestra were superb. The solo singing was disturbingly uneven, but tenor Matthew Anderson made a consistently heartfelt if youthful Evangelist, and the superb young tenor (last year’s Lorraine Hunt Lieberson Fellow) Jonas Budris did some particularly imaginative singing in the tenor solos.

David Hoose. Photo Kalman Zabarsky.
David Hoose. Photo Kalman Zabarsky.

And this is something I probably shouldn’t be reviewing except that it was such an extraordinary “performance.” A painful conflict forced me to miss the recent concert by the Cantata Singers—a beautifully planned program that included Beethoven’s rarely-performed short choral cantata Elegiac Song, Haydn’s Symphony No. 86, and Mozart’s Great Mass in C-minor. I couldn’t just ignore this completely and the management kindly allowed me to sit in on the dress rehearsal. I know of no finer Haydn conductor than Cantata Singers director David Hoose, and even in rehearsal, the Haydn was simply the most vividly engaging Haydn symphony I’ve heard in years. Not a bar, not a note, that wasn’t a happy surprise, that didn’t carry the listener forward. No. 86 is a symphony full of unexpected twists and turns (especially in the slow movement), and Haydn needs a “Lubitsch touch” (like the great film director Ernst Lubitsch, famous for the delicacy of his satire, the balance between hilarity at human folly and deep human understanding) and Hoose has it (the “Haydn touch”!). Later I heard a recording of the actual performance and it was at least as good. Bravo! And thanks!


The big classical music news is the unveiling of the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s plans for next season, and its ambitious new recording venture under music director Andris Nelsons. Over the next three years, Deutsche Grammophon has contracted to release a series of Shostakovich symphonies (Nos. 5-10), recorded live at Symphony Hall under Nelsons. The first release, this summer, will be the dark Tenth Symphony, which Nelsons has just led on a program that began with the composer’s grim Passacaglia (which will also be on the recording) from the opera that got him into trouble with Stalin, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. Nelsons, now 36, grew up in Latvia, and, as the BSO suggests, is one of the last conductors to be educated under the Soviet system and so has a special affinity for Shostakovich. The Tenth Symphony, mostly composed just after Stalin’s death, is a kind of testament to the composer’s survival under a brutal dictator.

Nelsons’s performance had its share of brutality. Lately, he seems determined to get the BSO to play as loud as possible. He has a very physical relation to dynamics. He leaps up to create more volume and crouches low to get less. (If he could leap higher, would the orchestra play even louder? If he crouched lower, would it play softer?) The week before the Shostakovich, in Mahler’s Sixth Symphony, the lurching dynamics and tempo changes made me seasick. Mahler’s Tragic Symphony, which some musicians (like Pierre Boulez) regard as Mahler’s masterpiece, was more brutal than I’ve ever heard it. And louder. The speed of the opening march was brash, but that cheekiness came at a high price. With this speed and volume, Nelsons drained the symphony of mystery. And character. The opening was so fast it seemed less like the grim march of a menacing Fate than an attempt to race away from the onslaught as quickly as possible. Mahler’s swooning love theme to his wife Alma sounded like tacky movie music.

Nelsons’s micromanagement tends to emphasize individual moments rather the long overview of an entire piece. The end result here was confused and unconvincing. Mahler was notoriously conflicted about the order of his two middle movements, a Scherzo and a slow movement. But even with Nelsons playing them in the order I prefer, that order suddenly didn’t seem right. There were beautiful moments in the Andante, but instead of unfolding, they just sat there, inert, disconnected from the rest. Slow passages had no pulse; while the loudest passages created something quite rare at Symphony Hall—a truly ugly noise. Mahler had a great influence on Shostakovich, but Nelsons seemed to be conducting Mahler as if he were Shostakovich.

I confess that I’m not in love with most of Shostakovich’s 15 symphonies. I find many of them bloated, noisy, and repetitive; the satirical passages heavy-handed; the lyric passages lacking the haunting beauty and emotional depth of Shostakovich’s chamber music. Two of the century’s greatest conductors—James Levine and Pierre Boulez—chose not to conduct them, though the BSO’s Serge Koussevitzky was a major partisan. The most revelatory Shostakovich performance by the BSO in recent years took place in October 2012, when the big, rarely-played Symphony No. 4 was led by the then 40-year-old Russian conductor of the London Philharmonic, Vladimir Jurowski. Here’s what I wrote about it in the Boston Phoenix:

Jurowski not only played the score, he played the orchestra; he even played the hall itself. Everything reverberated (in every sense). I loved that he returned to James Levine’s seating plan, dividing the first and second violins antiphonally, so that in the astonishing first-movement fugal chase we could follow the circle of entrances from first violins to violas, to second violins, then cellos and basses. Yet nothing seemed rushed. Intimate passages had breathing space. Even in the most frenzied passages, you could hear every detail. The playing was magnificent, and precise. All of this was accomplished by Jurowski with unshowy, minimal, efficient gestures, yet you were never in doubt about his emotional intensity and commitment.

Almost none of this was the case with Nelsons, though it was one of his more committed endeavors. But the Tenth Symphony, which is probably a greater work than the Fourth, felt tedious rather than electrifying. Even though the Tenth requires fewer players than the Fourth, by keeping the violins all massed together stage right and the cellos downstage left (as in all his performances), Nelsons emphasized a bottom-heavy sound and texture. Melodic contours seemed insufficiently etched. In one of his most familiar bits of body language, Nelsons bounces up and down with bent knees, like a jockey trying to whip up speed. Yet, though less egregiously than in the Mahler, the speed lacked forward thrust, and the slow passages seemed static.

Between the two Shostakovich pieces, though not particularly illuminated by them, Nelsons accompanied German violinist Christian Tetzlaff in the Beethoven Violin Concerto (remember how much Levine’s linking of Beethoven and Schoenberg illuminated both of them?). The soloist played with uncommon bite and warmth—sacrificing neither impeccable pitch nor ravishing tone—living the music. As in his previous BSO performance with Levine, Tetzlaff chose his own fascinating first-movement cadenza, which is based on the cadenza Beethoven himself wrote for his piano transcription of Violin Concerto, and which includes an eerie duet with timpani. The audience wouldn’t let him go, and he returned for an encore—a deliciously lilting Gavotte and Rondo from Bach’s Partita No. 3 in E for solo violin.

Nelsons preceded the Mahler Sixth with the premiere of Michael Gandolfi’s vigorously crowd-pleasing Ascending Light, a BSO commission in the form of a tribute to the heroes of the Armenian genocide using Armenian tunes, with Olivier Latry attacking the massive Symphony Hall organ front and center. It made for a very long evening, just as the following week two Shostakovich pieces (one nearly an hour), Beethoven, plus the encore kept the audience at Symphony Hall for more than two-and-a-half hours. (Remember when people, including the orchestra, complained about Levine going over two hours?)

Nelsons ended his Boston appearances this season with another ambitious program: the Boston premiere of Gunther Schuller’s witty and unsettling Dreamscape, pianist Richard Goode playing Mozart’s last piano concerto, and Richard Strauss’s massive Ein Heldenleben (“A hero’s life”—the hero being himself). Nelsons was bringing all three of these program to Carnegie Hall (which he performed there in reverse of the Boston order, and dropping the Gandolfi before the Mahler). This was the best of the three. When I arrived at Symphony Hall, Schuller, in a wheelchair and looking very thin but eyes blazing, was insisting on speaking to Nelsons. When I greeted him, he asked if I had ever looked at this score (I hadn’t). He said that while Nelsons was doing nothing wrong, there were too few rehearsals for a piece so complicated. Soon Nelsons emerged to meet him in the corridor. I could see Schuller making some conducting gestures and I could hear him humming a few bars. He himself had conducted the premiere with the student orchestra at Tanglewood in 2012 (it was a Tanglewood 75th-anniversary commission and had eight rehearsals). I heard the second performance that summer, led by Ollie Knussen. I like the jokes (numerous quotations, including Tchaikovsky’s Sugar-Plum Fairy, and perhaps an allusion to An American in Paris in the trombones; one musician yells out “No!” near the end of the opening Scherzo), but also the mysteriously sinister slow movement, Jules Eskin’s cello solo in the last movement, and the continuously rich unfolding palette of orchestral color. Schuller’s note tells us that much of this music came to him fully formed in a dream. I enjoyed hearing it again, and it makes a terrific paring with any piece (like the Strauss) that already requires a huge orchestra. The audience cheered.

They also cheered Goode, though his playing in the concerto struck me as a little precious—too pretty, too calculated for Mozart’s radical innocence. The Strauss was much too loud (Nelsons has yet to learn how to “play” Symphony Hall), but it was at least livelier than the Mahler or Shostakovich. The audience loved concertmaster Malcolm Lowe’s big solo portrait of Strauss’s wife Pauline. But while his playing was gorgeous, I missed her loving, teasing, flirtatious character. Strauss wasn’t portraying his complicated wife as a violin virtuoso. Later, near the end, the sheer beauty of Lowe’s solo seemed more appropriate.

I’ve heard some of these concerts on the WCRB Saturday night radio broadcasts. It’s amazing how much more balanced and modulated what I heard on the radio sounded than the aggressively loud and muddy performances I heard in Symphony Hall. The New York Times, reviewing the BSO’s Carnegie Hall concerts, with a number of reservations, admired the sound of the orchestra and praised Nelson’s energy. My worry, after the 29-year directorship of Seiji Ozawa, is that energy does not equal insight. What I’m missing from Nelsons so far is a real sense of direction. Understanding. Ideas. Vision.

Maybe it’s just too soon to tell. Next year’s BSO schedule continues Nelsons’s Shostakovich survey (opening night includes the delightful Shostakovich Ninth), which is a good first step. He’s also continuing what might turn into a survey of Richard Strauss operas with Elektra (with soprano Christine Goerke) following up his much-applauded Salome. 2016 is the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, which will be celebrated (is that the right word?) with three weeks of familiar and less familiar Bard-inspired works, the most interesting of which include Nelsons leading Henze’s magical Eighth Symphony, a 1993 BSO commission inspired by A Midsummer Night’s Dream; let me tell you—a new work by the Danish composer Hans Abrahamsen using texts from Hamlet and featuring the BSO debut of the multi-faceted Canadian soprano Barbara Hannigan; and George Tsontakis’s Sonnets, a long-overdue BSO commission for its star English horn player Robert Sheena. I’m also very happy to see the return of the charismatic French conductor Francois-Xavier Roth in two programs that include Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony, Stravinsky’s Petrushka, Debussy’s Jeux, and Dutilleux’s Le temps l’horloge (with soprano Renée Fleming). Jurowski will be back with a program including Haydn, Hartmann, and early Beethoven. But maybe the concert I’m most looking forward to is Charles Dutoit conducting Ravel’s sexy one-act opera L’Heure espagnole—a too-little-heard masterpiece.

There have been other notable BSO concerts since the New Year. Highlights include Boston’s unanticipated introduction to the BSO’s new assistant conductor, Ken-David Masur (Kurt’s son), a last-minute but eminently satisfying substitute, who sailed through a delightfully colorful rendition of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade (ending a program that also included Berlioz and Saint-Saëns). A few weeks later, Masur was back again replacing Vladimir Jurowski (big shoes to fill), who was forced to cancel because of a visa problem. Masur led works by Liadov (the obscure tone poem From the Apocalypse, a Koussevitzky favorite), Debussy (an elegant Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun with Elizabeth Rowe’s seductive flute solo), and Stravinsky (an enchanting Firebird Suite), while Stefan Asbury, who just happened to be in the country, led the important Boston premiere of Harrison Birtwistle’s intriguing and compelling Responses: Of sweet disorder and the carefully careless, for piano (Pierre-Laurent Aimard) and orchestra. Asbury had conducted the world premiere in Munich, though Jurowski led all the later performances. We don’t really know what Jurowski might have done, yet Asbury and Masur didn’t disappoint.

Stéphane Denève, who’d been a contender for the BSO directorship, delivered an appealing program of French Modernist classics from the 1920s that included sparkling and vinegary versions of Milhaud’s Creation of the World, Poulenc’s ballet music Les Biches, and a particularly persuasive Prokofiev Violin Concerto No. 1 with the excellent Canadian violinist James Ehnes making a welcome BSO comeback. The one thing that felt a little spongy was the most familiar item on the program, Stravinsky’s bewitching Pulcinella Suite.

But no question, the highlight of the entire BSO season was the Boston premiere of Karol Szymanowski’s masterpiece from 1926, the disturbingly gorgeous, homoerotic opera King Roger (inspired by Euripides’s harrowing The Bacchae), about the triumph of Dionysian excess and carnality over the restraints of civilization. Charles Dutoit conducted an outstanding cast that included the Metropolitan Opera’s sexy, golden-toned Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecien in the title role (he was Levine’s Don Giovanni in a memorable 2006 Tanglewood concert) and an exciting newcomer to Boston, the brilliant Lithuanian tenor Edgaras Montvidas, as the shepherd/Dionysus, object of both the king and queen’s obsessions. As Queen Roxana, Ukrainian soprano Olga Pasichnyk was effectively erotic (especially in her haunting lullaby) but vocally more controversial. Rich-voiced Swiss mezzo-soprano Yvonne Naef provided a glowing cameo. And John Oliver’s Tanglewood Festival Chorus was magnificent, and scary, singing passionately from memory and in Polish! (On a ten-part YouTube you can see Kwiecien and Pasichnyk in a perhaps appropriately bizarre and/or cockeyed production at the Paris Opera.)

After the three-week barrage of BLPs (“big loud pieces”) led by Nelsons in preparation for Carnegie Hall, it was a relief to be at Symphony Hall for Conductor Emeritus Bernard Haitink’s return visit. A BSO historian pointed out to me that Haitink, who conducted his first BSO concert in February 1971, is very close to breaking Pierre Monteux’s record of leading the BSO over the longest span of time. I haven’t been one of his staunchest admirers. Mahler, the composer he’s probably most associated with, has always seemed to me a little anemic—almost the polar opposite of Nelsons’s aggressive energy. I’m not especially looking forward to his upcoming Brahms, which closes the BSO season.

But this past week, his program was an irresistible model of elegance, buoyancy, and refined articulation. No one makes the BSO sound more sheerly beautiful. His cool, clear, ascetic Stravinsky Symphony of Psalms (one of the BSO’s most important commissions), three years ago, was truly spiritual, unlike the way that Nelsons’s sentimental soft-focused version at Tanglewood a few months later missed the mark. I tend to forget how good Haitink is with French music. His Pelléas et Mélisande, in 2003, with the heartbreaking Lorraine Hunt Lieberson as Debussy’s lost heroine, was one of the great BSO events. This time, he led a dreamy Ravel Mother Goose (the complete ballet) and a snappily syncopated, jazzy (the piece begins and ends with a slapstick) Ravel Concerto in G, with Jean-Yves Thibaudet at his most scintillating and magical, especially in the ravishing slow movement, which begins as a long piano solo. The wind playing here—Elizabeth Rowe, flute; John Ferrillo, oboe; Robert Sheena, English horn (taking over the melody while the piano makes mysterious arpeggios)—was the BSO at its best.

The second part of the program, which Haitink unfortunately began before the audience was fully seated, consisted of Thomas Adès’s quietly fascinating Three Studies from Couperin, from 2006 and new to the BSO. Adès’s model is surely what Stravinsky did by re-examining and re-orchestrating the music of Pergolesi and his contemporaries in Pulcinella. Here Adès uses music by the French Baroque harpsichord master, and his quicksilver middle movement (Les Tours de passe-passe “The sleight-of-hand”) even echoes Pulcinella. The studies end with the funereal Soul in Distress with its ominous timpani and bass drum taps. Alto and bass flute, bass marimba, anvil, and five roto-toms are among the less familiar instruments. The concert ended with a grand and loving account of Mozart’s C-major Linz Symphony, completed in four days (!), perhaps among all his the masterpieces the one Mozart completed in the shortest amount of time.

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