Baillie, Boston Phil serve up riveting Lutoslawski
The Boston Philharmonic under conductor Benjamin Zander took a bit of a risk in dropping Beethoven from its third program, the title of which—“Breaking Free of Chains”—seems to beg for a Beethoven work.
Instead, the program was made up solely of works by Witold Lutosławski and Richard Strauss. The risk was vindicated in the performances presented Thursday night at Sanders Theatre, particularly the moving and exciting rendition of Lutosławski’s Cello Concerto.
Newcomers to the Lutosławski’s concerto benefited immensely from Zander’s pre-performance lecture, part of the Philharmonic’s Discovery Series. Besides playing excerpts of the piece, Zander oriented the audience to the composition’s historical setting—Poland under Communist dictatorship—and its musical structure with the musical reflecting the individual’s struggle against an opaque, collective authority.
The character of the protagonist, as imagined by Lutosławski, was played brilliantly by soloist Alexander Baillie. Perhaps only a cellist with Baillie’s skill and imagination could produce such an amazing range of sonic effects, one moment resembling an air siren, another a timpani. Unusually for a non-vocal soloist, Baillie’s dramatic facial expressions and gestures seemed inextricably linked to the performance.
There were some absolutely chilling moments, for instance when the strings softly played quarter-tones as though ghosts of Baillie’s solo line, or when the orchestra blasted tuttis like a siege against the cello’s silence. Programming Lutosławski’s Cello Concerto indicates the Boston Philharmonic’s commitment to bringing less well-often heard works to audiences, and the inspired performance was a testament to the talent and imagination of Baillie, Zander and the orchestra.
Heard next to the Lutosławski, Richard Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben seemed a bit facile by comparison. In this tone poem that Strauss wrote to define, musically, what a “hero” was, the sole antagonists turn out to be music critics, caricatured by tubas and flutes. Nevertheless, Ein Heldenleben contained many dramatic alterations of mood that seemed to inspire Zander and the Philharmonic. A highlight was the solo violin part representing Strauss’s wife, played by concertmaster Joanna Kurkowicz.
The performance suffered from imbalances that submerged some of the contrapuntal complexities and an ending, with its exposed brass parts, that teetered, but Zander’s verve and the Philharmonic’s committed playing gave a largely satisfying performance.
The Boston Philharmonic will repeat this program 8 p.m. Friday in Jordan Hall and 8 p.m. Saturday at Sanders Theatre, Harvard University. bostonphilharmonic.org
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