BSO opens season with a family affair for Lehninger, orchestra soloists

September 19, 2014 at 1:49 pm

By David Wright

The Boston Symphony Orchestra wind principals perform Mozart’s “Sinfonia concertante” with their BSO colleagues under Marcelo Lehninger Thursday night at Symphony Hall. Photo: Hilary Scott

The Boston Symphony Orchestra is getting so good at putting on low-key, music-directorless opening nights, it may just go on doing them indefinitely.

Necessity has dictated these modest affairs in recent, leaderless years.  But now music director Andris Nelsons is safely installed in his Symphony Hall office, or at least in the BSO’s publicity materials, and it wouldn’t seem out of place for him to stride onstage to the sound of heraldic trumpets.  But Thursday night’s season opener was more like the family gathering around the hearth, waiting for daddy to come home.

The BSO’s associate conductor Marcelo Lehninger—celebrating his recent adjectival change from “assistant”—presided capably over a program featuring four of the orchestra’s principal wind players in Mozart’s Sinfonia concertante, K.297b (or if you insist, K. Anh. C 14.01) and familiar items by Villa-Lobos and Beethoven.

The reason given for the music director’s absence this weekend was a prior commitment to his other band, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, back in the still-united U.K.  But one wonders if this gentle slide into the season didn’t also cater to a certain Bostonian reticence, like this city’s private clubs with their unmarked entrances.  You can find them if you really need to.

Lehninger and company seemed to have no trouble finding the music Thursday night; indeed, they were quite intent on it.  Any time the conductor repeats the exposition in the finale of Beethoven’s Fifth, you know you’re having a serious night.

But they also proved that one can be jaunty and serious at the same time—as was Steven Ledbetter’s program note on the Sinfonia concertante, whose provenance is so sketchy that some scholars doubt it is by Mozart at all.

No review can substitute for Ledbetter’s amusing account—much less scholar-pianist Robert Levin’s entire book on this piece–but just listening to the music turns up some un-Mozartian moments, such as a rather dull first-movement exposition and the finale’s not-very-varied variations.  On the other hand, the writing for the four wind soloists is so delicious and imaginative, especially in the songful Adagio, that one could hardly imagine it being by anybody else.

Of course, if anybody could make it sound that way, it would be the BSO’s esteemed principals: oboist John Ferrillo, clarinetist William B. Hudgins, hornist James Sommerville, and bassoonist Richard Svoboda.  Originally composed for a pick-up quartet of star soloists, on Thursday the Sinfonia concertante benefited greatly from the years these BSO players have spent working together, week in and week out, polishing their sound until they seem to match overtone for overtone.

As the “first violinist” of this quartet, oboist Ferrillo had the most opportunities to shine, exploiting them with full-bodied tone and flexible phrasing, but the other three all had their virtuoso moments too.  Svoboda even had something to say in his part’s frequent passages of staccato accompaniment.

Not neglecting the sinfonia half of the equation, Lehninger and the orchestra partnered the soloists with a robust and lively orchestral sound.

Another take on robust-and-lively arrived in the tall person of soprano Nicole Cabell, who glided and swooped stylishly through the wordless vocalise of Villa-Lobos’s well-known Bachianas brasileiras No. 5. 

While Cabell’s creamy tone easily filled the hall, the eight cellos that accompanied her did not.  On the podium, Lehninger seemed to be sensitively interpreting his countryman’s score, but the grumbly sound barely ventured as far as this listener’s seat, a third of the way back.  During the singer’s humming pianissimo reprise, however, the cellos came into their own, especially the expressive (if not so idiomatic as Cabell’s) solos of Jules Eskin.

Audibility was not a problem in the work’s concluding Dança, with its biting, strumming cellos, and gymnastics both vocal and dictional for the singer.  The players and Cabell carried it off with panache.

The great musical analyst Donald Francis Tovey once described Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony as “so overwhelmingly convincing and so obviously untranslatable that it has for many generations been treated quite reasonably as a piece of music, instead of an excuse for discussing the French Revolution.”  Lehninger’s goal on Thursday night was apparently to place the Fifth Symphony on that same pedestal.

Fate knocking at the door?  Struggle with adversity?  Rumblings of rebellion?  Triumph against the odds?  To paraphrase Toscanini, Lehninger seemed to look at the page and see Allegro con brio.

Barely pausing for the piece’s dramatic opening fermatas, Lehninger set the music chugging from the start, a shiny and fascinating object instead of an excuse for discussing the unfairness of a composer’s going deaf.

While the players executed this plan with breathtaking precision, a mechanical feeling eventually crept into it that caused a sensation of less headlong momentum instead of more.

Similarly, in this objective rendering, the enigmas of the middle movements—the Andante con moto alternately tender and bombastic, the scherzo furtive and dire—just stared back at the listener, unresolved.  One came to appreciate the efforts of previous conductors to find the threads of meaning in this music and tie them together.

But, paradoxically, Lehninger’s approach offered a novel solution to the symphony’s most notorious problem: its finale.  Writers from Berlioz onward have bemoaned the necessity of sitting through an entire movement that seems to end with its beginning, a long, massive crescendo culminating in an explosion in C major.  After that colossal effect, the goal of most performances was to get the symphony over with as soon as possible.

Lehninger started by de-colossalizing that crescendo, turning it into a quick widening-out to the forte theme of the finale.  Then he moved the music smartly along but without rushing, and when he came to the double bar, instead of proceeding straight to the development section, he started the movement over again.

That’s when it dawned on this listener that we were going to be here for a while.  This finale would not be a dash to the end, or an overlong ode to C major, but a large movement in sonata form, full of good material that was designed to be heard a second time before going to the development.  The idea was to settle back (as much as one can in a Symphony Hall seat) and listen to this finale as a piece of music, instead of an excuse for discussing which train to take home.

After this substantial meal, dessert came in the form of a coda whipped up to dizzying speed, turning Beethoven’s gloriously interminable ending into something more like just plain glorious.

On a good night for oboists, the conductor called on assistant principal Keisuke Wakao for a bow in recognition of his shapely and rich-toned oboe solos throughout the symphony, especially the striking first-movement cadenza.

Those heraldic trumpets—or at least the Lohengrin Overture—will sound for Maestro Nelsons at a sold-out, one-night-only affair on September 27.  But the trombones and piccolo Beethoven added to the Fifth Symphony’s finale will do fine for Associate Maestro Lehninger this weekend.

The program will be repeated 1:30 p.m. Friday and 8 p.m. Saturday.  bso.org; 617-266-1200.

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