Nelsons wraps his first BSO season with a program of mixed dreams
It began with the thunder of Roman soldiers’ footsteps on the Appian Way, but this weekend in Symphony Hall, Andris Nelsons’s inaugural season as music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra is wafting to a close in a land of dreams.
Although Nelsons and the BSO will play Carnegie Hall next week and there are two more local programs left, to be led by the BSO’s conductor emeritus Bernard Haitink, on Thursday maestro Nelsons began saying arrivederci to local subscription audiences with a program that started inside Gunther Schuller’s subconscious, passed through Mozart’s most not-of-this-world concerto, and arrived at a fantasy of another sort, Richard Strauss’s grandiose self-portrait in Ein Heldenleben.
By Schuller’s account, his 2012 piece Dreamscape literally came to him in a dream, all three movements of it, complete with themes, development, and instrumentation. Fortunately, he was able to write it all down in some fashion the next morning, before it fled his mind.
One can’t say for sure whether the content of the dream was influenced by the commission for an orchestral piece in celebration of the 75th anniversary of the Tanglewood Music Festival (of which Schuller is the former director), but certainly the droll opening movement, Scherzo umoristico e curioso, sounded like a trip through the cluttered mind of one who has spent too many nights in the Shed. Mozart and Strauss not only shared Thursday’s concert program with this piece, they seem to have wandered into the score itself, and Tchaikovsky’s Sugar Plum Fairy was definitely the guest who wouldn’t leave. Seemingly random beeps and bloops in woodwinds and percussion set the surrealistic scene.
The second of the piece’s three brief movements, Nocturne, hovered in a fog-shrouded landscape deftly painted with hazy strings and rustling percussion. The closing movement, which the composer’s dream specified should be about the concept of evolution, grew slowly and continuously from a barely audible rumble of double basses to a brassy blaze at the end. The term crescendo comes from a verb meaning “to grow,” and this music certainly had an organic feel to it.
Nelson and the players gave the piece a spirited, colorful reading, after which the 89-year-old composer, one of this city’s most durable musical figures, rose at his seat to acknowledge the audience’s warm applause.
Mozart’s last piano concerto, No. 27 in B-flat major, K. 595, was completed in 1791, when the composer-pianist was no longer the darling of the fickle Viennese public, and the piece is often described as more inward-looking and less flashy than its predecessors. That reputation seemed to inhibit Nelsons and piano soloist Richard Goode at the outset; conducting without a baton, Nelsons led a slightly tentative orchestral exposition, and the pianist’s response seemed overly polite.
Later in the first movement, however, Nelsons picked up his baton and, perhaps not coincidentally, the orchestra seemed to find its feet, playing tutti passages with more clarity and purpose. Goode’s playing, though fleet-fingered and tidily phrased, could have used a spoonful of the same medicine; he kept it light on the keys even when more dig seemed called for, and a persistent mannerism of pulling back at the top of a crescendo tended to rob his playing of energy. He rose to the occasion, however, in the robust cadenzas Mozart composed for the first and third movements.
Pianist and conductor responded differently to the Larghetto’s air of delicate melancholy. Leading off the movement, Goode brought an Apollonian cool to his part, the elegantly voiced chords stepping down the keyboard with quiet dignity. In the orchestral responses, Nelsons seemed to feel no such inhibitions, his hands (batonless again) exhorting the orchestra to swell with emotion.
In the finale, however, everyone got together and hit the same easy stride in the skipping main theme. The orchestra’s woodwinds danced divinely, in solos and as a section. Goode excelled in blazing scales, and particularly in the capricious, cadenza-like Eingang, a solo passage leading back to the main theme. The movement, with its gloriously extended coda, ended on a high note, and Goode was called back to the stage twice for bows.
On the podium, Andris Nelsons’s intense physical involvement with every detail of a score is something to see—hard not to watch, in fact. On good nights when the agile conductor seems to be surfing a great wave of orchestral sound, it’s easy to forget how close his approach comes to fussy over-management of the players.
Thursday night in Ein Heldenleben, the BSO players delivered a performance that was exemplary in its power, clarity, and coordination. But there was something missing in the characterization and continuity of the performance, and one became conscious of Nelsons’s efforts to shape each moment just so.
And in spite of his attentions, a lot of those moments didn’t quite pay off. The entrance of the Hero’s carping critics in woodwinds and muted brass, for example, was clean and accurate, but lacking that nyaah-nyaah factor. The battle scene, undeniably a virtuoso turn for the entire orchestra, might have had more effect if it had sounded a little less under control. And on this night “The Hero’s Works of Peace,” a collage of themes from Strauss’s other pieces, was outshone by Schuller’s scrappy dream-scherzo as an evocative musical reminiscence.
It’s a hazard of performing Strauss’s tone poems that attention to detail, however admirable in itself, can cause listeners to lose sight of the arc of the drama, so that when the composer shows up at the end to squeeze our tear ducts in the coda, we find ourselves unmoved. That, at least, was the reaction of one listener to Thursday night’s brilliant but somewhat disjointed performance.
The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Friday (UnderScore Friday concert with introductory comments by BSO violinist Jennie Shames), Saturday and Tuesday. bso.org; 617-266-1200.
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