Gandolfi premiere and Nelsons’ local Mahler debut highlight strong night at BSO
There wasn’t much doing Thursday night in Symphony Hall—just a world premiere and a music director’s Mahler debut.
In a sense, Michael Gandolfi’s Ascending Light was having a double premiere: the first performance of the first piece for orchestra and organ solo ever commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
Also, anticipation was running high for a landmark of Andris Nelsons’s inaugural season as the BSO’s music director: the first opportunity to hear him conduct the music of Gustav Mahler in Boston. Perhaps even more for the players than for the audience, Thursday’s performance of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony recalled the night in Carnegie Hall in March 2011 when Nelsons made his unexpected BSO debut, substituting for an ailing James Levine in a performance of Mahler’s Ninth.
That performance went well enough to prompt speculation about what this young man could accomplish with a Mahler score if he and the orchestra knew each other better and there was more time to prepare. On Thursday, almost exactly four years later, Boston got its answer.
But first, there was Gandolfi’s piece, five years in the making and no pushover in a matchup with Mahler. Ascending Light shared with Mahler’s Sixth a love of the spectacular, a striving for transcendence, and most noticeably a pounding march rhythm that functioned virtually as a theme in both pieces.
The work, in two connected movements, derived its ambitious agenda from one of the most terrible events in a century full of them, the Armenian Genocide of 1915. To commemorate the somber anniversary, the Gomidas Organ Fund initiated and supported the BSO commission in 2009, honoring in the process its founder, the Boston-based, Armenian-American organist Berj Zamkochian (1929-2004).
On Thursday, the piece opened in a blaze of full orchestra and organ sound, as soloist Olivier Latry–seated almost center stage with the console turned so that the audience could see its dazzling array of stops, four manuals (keyboards), and pedals—pumped out rising scales over big, sustained orchestral chords. (At times, trumpet and trombone players stood with instruments raised to make the sound even more intense.) Most of the first movement, titled “Vis vitalis” (life force), was in this grand largo style, with a catchy episode of syncopated fiddling in the middle.
Armenian folk seasoning was liberally applied in the second movement, where a song called “Lullaby of Tigranakert” underwent a series of mostly soft and delicate variations that wouldn’t wake the baby, at least until organ and orchestra got going on a jig-like “grand variation” that seemed to suggest that the capital of Armenia is Dublin.
Softly introducing the Armenian hymn “Aravot lousaber” (Ascending Light) in flute stops and then reeds, Latry sounded like the organist at the church down the street, but soon the grand style and throbbing rhythm of the opening returned to close the piece on a triumphant note. (Literally a note. On Thursday, an organ “cipher”— a tone that didn’t shut off when the key was released— unexpectedly prolonged the piece by several seconds before Latry was able to silence it.)
Latry performed ably in a solo part that was not so much showy or concerto-like as integrated with the orchestral fabric. Nevertheless, he made his presence felt in artful dialogue with solo winds during the variations movement, and of course in the room-shaking rumble of his instrument’s contrabass register. Nelsons was a sensitive collaborator in crafting the overall sound of the piece. The two artists and the Cambridge-based composer were called to the stage several times by enthusiastic applause.
Andris Nelsons began his Mahler career in Boston with a courageous choice.
The last of Mahler’s nine-and-a-fraction symphonies to be performed in the United States (Dmitri Mitropoulos finally managed it in 1947), the Sixth remains, for this listener at least, easier to admire than to love. Its almost unrelieved pessimism, its habit of building to emotional climaxes and then withholding them, may be true to some aspects of human experience, but can make for a long hour and twenty minutes in the concert hall.
However, on Thursday night one couldn’t help but be moved by Nelsons’s fierce commitment to this music, expressed in every bone and muscle of his lanky frame, and by the orchestra’s eager yet disciplined response. The conductor seemed to have an endless repertoire of gestures as he carried on his visual conversation with the players, sometimes contrapuntally with arms, elbows, hands, head, knees, whatever was available.
Once in a while, Nelsons remembered to let the music be for a while, resting his left hand on the railing behind him and keeping time with the right while the players did the work. But most of the time, the music seemed to possess him body and soul as he strove to infuse his own energy into the performance.
On another night, with other repertoire, one might complain that a young man’s belief that he can control everything may lead to micromanagement in performance. But Mahler’s scores, studded with instructions to the conductor every few bars, were already micromanaged by the composer himself, and in particular the Sixth, with its incessant changes of timbre and mood, its sudden silences and exclamations, are a conductorial obstacle course like no other.
Nelsons navigated that course with determination and attention to detail, making the opening march crackle with sardonic intensity and the later “Alma” theme swell to Wagnerian gorgeousness. The tutti crescendos and diminuendos were all observed, of course, but so were the countless dynamic inflections within the orchestral texture, each one essential to the moment Mahler was trying to create. Nelsons’s performance did not just string those moments together, but drove forward through them.
The composer himself changed his mind several times about the order of this symphony’s two middle movements, and his “final intentions” in the matter are obscure, if even he knew them. On Thursday, Nelsons elected to follow the first movement with the Scherzo, an up-tempo parody of themes heard earlier. (This type of second-movement scherzo has precedents in Beethoven’s late works, notably the Ninth Symphony.)
Nelsons’s robust yet deft rendering of the Scherzo alternated with a graceful and “Altväterlich” (Mahler’s marking, meaning old-fashioned) trio, which tended to veer off into a spooky, dream-like state.
A different kind of dream, languid and floating, characterized the Andante moderato, which, as Nelsons directed it, mostly abstained from “Mahlerian” expressive surges in favor of subtle orchestral coloration at the dynamic level of piano and below.
The finale’s brooding introduction for low winds and brass was like an opera curtain going up on a darkened grotto. In fact, from there to the closing bars nearly half an hour later, the orchestra’s deepest instruments—double basses (nine of them at this performance), trombones, tuba, bass and contrabass winds—rich-toned, superbly tuned and blended, at times rivaling those big organ pipes for power, and surpassing them for variety of timbre, set the tone for Mahler’s dark vision.
Nelsons led the finale’s stern march with as much vigor and breadth as he could muster, making himself large on the podium like a hiker trying to scare off a grizzly bear. Mahler’s uncanny effects—the screech of trumpet, piccolo and glockenspiel, for example, or the odd interjections of xylophone, celesta, and cowbells—left their indelible impression. And if, as usual, the two mighty hammer blows had more visible than audible impact—the other instruments were awfully loud at that point–at least they arrived on time and served their symbolic purpose.
At concert’s end, also as usual, the modest maestro spent his considerable ovation getting orchestra players up for bows singly or in groups, a sizable task in this case. No matter—a repertoire hurdle had been cleared with room to spare, and one could begin dreaming of warmer days in August, and a Nelsons Mahler Eighth in Tanglewood.
The performance will be repeated 8 p.m. Saturday and Tuesday. bso.org; 617-266-1200.
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