In BSO’s retooled program, less proves to be more

January 20, 2012 at 9:34 am

By Keith Powers

Giancarlo Guerrero leading the BSO in "The Rite of Spring" Thursday night at Symphony Hall. Photo: Stu Rosner

When the Boston Symphony Orchestra announced that Riccardo Chailly had cancelled his January appearances, and that no replacement would be named for half of Thursday evening’s program at Symphony Hall, the prospect of a directionless hodgepodge loomed.

Think again. With a stirring quartet of fresh-sounding works, and no one waving a stick, the BSO featured its brass, wind and string sections, giving each separate ensemble a chance to star rather than to blend.

Copland’s brief but stalwart Fanfare for the Common Man opened the evening, the brass sitting in a semi-circle for this honorably infectious rouser.

The brass stayed on for Henri Tomasi’s Procession du Vendredi-Saint from a set of liturgical fanfares of a much different mood. In three-part style, the outside sections are built around an ostinato offered by the lower instruments. Tomasi, a prolific 20th-century French composer whose works have fallen out of favor, sets a somber tone. The beginning and ending showed only a formulaic pattern; the internal, lyric section was the most distinctive, punctuated by a delicate solo by principal trumpet Thomas Rolfs.

The winds drew the short straw, slotted in for Richard Strauss’ youthful Op. 7 Serenade, a work that earnestly involves all the winds, but to little effect.

The BSO strings, about two-dozen strong, took the stage for Tchaikovsky’s familiar Serenade for Strings, a melody-filled investigation into sentimentality. Although concertmaster Malcolm Lowe was clearly acting as leader from the first chair, here the lack of a conductor was telling. The playing was superb, and the sections individually knitted together with the kind of organic intuition that develops from years together. But there was also a clear lack of dynamic variance in a piece that pleads for it.

After intermission, there were problems of a more predictable kind. Costa Rican maestro Giancarlo Guerrero, conducting bravely without the score, stepped in for Chailly in Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Guerrero, making his Symphony Hall debut, currently leads the Nashville Symphony as well as the Cleveland Orchestra in its Miami residency.

Rite of Spring is discordant, dissociative and dissonant, to be sure, but it is not just those things. There are crucial moments of musical introspection, particularly some delicate part writing that divides individual sections of the orchestra into smaller groups.

For all of Guerrero’s vitality, he missed most of them Thursday night. He seemed most often to be only conducting the bass drum at the center rear of the stage, a certain audience pleaser, but missing many musical opportunities along the way.

The program will be repeated 1:30 p.m. Friday, 8 p.m. Saturday and Tuesday.; 617-266-1492.

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