Chung and Ohlsson bring verve to rare Barber and familiar Tchaikovsky

November 11, 2011 at 11:09 am

By Keith Powers

Garrick Ohlsson performs Barber's Piano Concerto with conductor Myung-Whun Chung and the BSO Thursday night at Symphony Hall. Photo: Stu Rosner

With a marvelous blend of personalities, the Boston Symphony Orchestra presented a conductor and soloist who were truly on the same page as the composer Thursday evening at Symphony Hall.

Samuel Barber’s Piano Concerto was premiered in 1962 by the BSO and soloist John Browning under Erich Leinsdorf (not in Boston but in New York). This week at Symphony Hall the soloist is the estimable Garrick Ohlsson, performing — amazingly — his twelfth different concerto with the BSO. The conductor is the Korean-born Myung-Whun Chung, himself a formidable pianist before focusing his talents on the podium.

A prime example of how the concerto can take an unusual form, Barber’s work refrains from pitting the soloist against the orchestra. At the first downbeat Ohlsson pounded out boisterous octaves, but when the orchestra began its response, Barber alters the harmonies underneath. The effect created a stacked sound, with multiple ideas in place at once. Percussive action dominates — in the orchestra, as well as the soloist’s part. Ohlsson hardly played a lyric line in the first movement, although the phrasing was distinct and articulate.

The second movement, marked Canzone, begins with the soloist delineating a gorgeous melody, accompanied only by the second violins and pizzicato violas, playing softly, almost like an offstage banda. Solo sections for the oboe and flute feature throughout the concerto.

The finale resumes the percussive, aggressive mode, with jazzy ostinatos for the soloist and the clarinet. It’s a substantial movement, with multiple melodies at play, and Ohlsson used every bit of his 6’4” frame to cover the daunting keyboard demands. He is the first soloist to attempt the work with the BSO since its dedicatee Browning. Let’s hope he is not the last, since this accessible work belongs in the regular repertory.

Chung himself has had a curious history with the BSO: a debut in 1985, a return a decade later, and now this appearance. His energy and musicianship clearly demand more frequent engagements.

The orchestra flanked the concerto with Weber’s overture to Der Freischütz and Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique symphony.

Unlike most opera overture, Weber’s curtain-raiser to Freischütz feels like a unified work, and, stitched together by an expert like Chung, sounded like a natural progression.

In the Pathetique, Chung seemed intent on capturing the work’s inherent tragedy right from the opening bassoon solo. The symphony undoes any typical structure: the first movement, in two distinct parts, features one of the composer’s most indelible melodies. The second, a scherzo in waltz tempo, could have been lifted from any of his ballets. The third buries its martial roots in exuberant melodies—the section is so compelling that spontaneous applause broke out as usual at its conclusion. And the finale, another unique style marked “Adagio lamentoso,” would seem a letdown if the symphony’s tragic circumstances were ignored

Chung, working from memory all evening, dove into the emotional excess with gusto, and maintained orchestra tension throughout—not such an easy task, given the work’s familiarity and length.

The program will be repeated 7 p.m. Friday and 8 p.m. Saturday;; 617-266-1492.

Posted in Performances

One Response to “Chung and Ohlsson bring verve to rare Barber and familiar Tchaikovsky”

  1. Posted Nov 13, 2011 at 1:23 pm by Daniel Lobb

    I heard the Friday night performance, and the musicians played their hearts out for him. Chung draws an emotional immediacy from his orchestras, unlike the pre-packaged presentations we usually hear. I heard him conduct the Mahler Sixth in October in Seoul, and his ability to shape long phrases produced a revelatory performance. He has a twenty year recording contract with Deutsche Grammaphon which he could apply to the BSO, if it should happen that he is offered the directorship.

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