Nelsons intrigues in first BSO appearance as music director-designate
Another week, another Boston Symphony Orchestra program: Thursday night looked like nothing unusual, a bit of Wagner, a Mozart piano concerto, and Brahms’s least-played symphony, conducted by a tall young fellow from Latvia who had led this orchestra a couple of times before.
So why was Symphony Hall packed, and why did the audience leap to its feet and cheer when the young man walked onstage? Because the man was Andris Nelsons, and this was Boston’s first real look at him since last spring, when he was elevated over more senior candidates to be appointed the next music director of the BSO. (Because of commitments elsewhere, his tenure here won’t begin until fall 2014.)
This program, planned long before last spring’s announcement, might not have been the one Nelsons would have picked as his calling card in his new role, but he had a first-rate piano soloist in Paul Lewis, some substantial music to get his teeth into, and a leadership-starved audience that was fervently rooting for him to succeed, so he jumped in with both feet.
But not at first. Nelson’s situation was a bit like a man finally meeting his mail-order bride, and he had admitted to nervousness before this concert. The soft opening bars of Siegfried Idyll, Wagner’s musical valentine to his wife, sounded more tentative than tender as conductor and orchestra tried to put the noisy ovation behind them and enter a world of intimate expression.
Nelson’s efforts to think small—keeping the lid on crescendos, for example, so that they didn’t rise to Tristan-like effusions—sometimes made the music seem directionless. When it occasionally fell into a holding pattern, repeating the same phrase over and over, Nelsons was content to leave it there, rather than trying to inject interest through inflection.
Depending on one’s perspective, the performance was either a model of restraint or disjointed and un-Wagnerian. In any case, players and conductor seemed eventually to get over their first-page jitters and create delicate effects amid well-timed pauses and beautiful horn and wind solos.
Curiously, it was during the most exquisite passages that the audience started to cough, after listening silently for most of the piece. It was as if, having finally found the podium mastery they had been listening so intently to hear, listeners could relax and behave as they usually do.
There were no such challenges to concentration in Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 25 in C major, K. 503. As always, the composer kept the fresh new ideas coming throughout the piece, and orchestra and pianist handled them all with superb imagination and élan.
Nelsons set the tone with a bold, symphonic exposition that was far more than a mere prelude to the piano’s entrance. Pianist Lewis proved a Mozartean through and through, with elegant phrasing, a clear tone that carried effortlessly to the back row, and the ability to change moods on a dime from wistful to funny to passionate and back again.
His astonishingly fluent technique made the piece’s abundant scales and passagework sound less like a lot of fast notes and more like beautiful shapes in the air. Orchestra and pianist fed off each other to produce the kind of lively, aware, and stylish Mozart concerto performance that is too rarely heard these days, or any days.
In the second movement, Lewis’s sense of fantasy and expressive freedom turned the simple Andante into a mystery tour, abetted by outstanding horn and oboe solos, which perhaps stood out a little too much in some places.
Buoyant rhythm and expert dovetailing of the themes and episodes kept the finale humming, as pianist and orchestra tossed the themes back and forth like jugglers, then joined together in the coda for the topper, lightning scales perfectly coordinated.
The modest reputation of Brahms’s Third Symphony compared to its three siblings is surely related to the enigma of the music itself. It opens with the most splendid, optimistic music in the whole piece, then wanders off into a landscape of ambiguous expression that is often fascinating and ear-pleasing in detail, but baffling as to where it’s going.
The conductor’s choice is between letting Brahms’s Third be the mysterious monolith it seems to want to be, or to take hold of it and try to drive the music in a particular expressive direction.
Nelsons appeared to be a man with a plan Thursday night, delivering the opening theme with enormous sweep and power, then dropping way, way down (literally folding his tall body in half on the podium) for the more intimate moments, which tended to make them sound too swoony and fussed-over, although the ear adjusted to it after a while.
Meanwhile, the rich yet transparent orchestral sound allowed one to appreciate the density of detail in Brahms’s score, particularly the constant interplay of the woodwinds.
Nelsons took the Andante in a steady, gentle tempo blessedly free of tweaking and fussing, allowing its many questions to pose themselves naturally. There was plenty of time to savor Brahms’s scoring, especially the unusual doublings (oboe and horn, or clarinet and violins) that, when blended as expertly as they were Thursday night, produce extraordinary, organ-like timbres in the instrumental solos.
The Poco Allegretto was distinguished for the sheer beauty of its sound, the strings exquisitely soft and silky in the melancholy waltz theme, the winds gently supportive at the outset but dancing brightly in the middle section. Conducting beat by beat, Nelsons made the phrases sound a little self-conscious at first, but by the time the theme returned glowingly in the horn, it had taken on a languid sway of its own.
Nothing in the first three movements of this symphony prepares one for the storm of rage that breaks out in the finale, which opens with sullen muttering and then—in Nelsons’s version, at least—hits the listener with a huge blow on timpani and a bark of brass that are like a sudden clap of thunder on a summer day.
Nelsons repeatedly drove trumpets and trombones to a peak of fury during the movement, which only heightened the enigma of the symphony’s quiet ending, the brass tamed for a closing chorale—rich-toned and tautly-phrased in Thursday’s performance—as the symphony’s opening theme floated down over the scene like a gauzy curtain.
The curtain will go up on many more BSO performances led by Andris Nelsons, and the orchestra will become more and more his instrument. Then, perhaps, audiences will begin to see past the enigma of the dark-horse candidate turned music director-designate.
The program will be repeated 1:30 p.m. Friday and 8 p.m. Saturday. bso.org; 617-266-1200.
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