Frühbeck de Burgos leads Symphony Hall homecoming for favorite BSO commissions

March 1, 2013 at 3:12 pm

By David Wright

Lang Lang performs Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 with Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos and the BSO Thursday night. Photo: Stu Rosner

No orchestra—no anything—can live on a steady diet of past glories, but every so often an evening of past glories can be quite rewarding.  The Boston Symphony Orchestra has plenty of them to point to, especially in the area of adding enduring masterworks to the repertoire through commissions.  On Thursday night in Symphony Hall, guest conductor Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos led two of the orchestra’s greatest commissioning hits: Hindemith’s Konzertmusik for Brass and Strings and Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra.

The BSO’s proprietary pride in these pieces is plain to see, and whenever those well-worn parts come out of the orchestra library one can expect a performance that is authoritative, at the very least.

Perhaps out of concern that the glow of history doesn’t fill seats in 2013, the orchestra also added a ticket-selling machine to Thursday’s program: the wildly popular Lang Lang, performing Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor.

One would like to say these very different kinds of twentieth-century masterpieces play well together, perhaps even provide insights into each other.  But in Thursday night’s performances, the mid-century moderns seemed to sit on one side of the dance floor, warily eyeing the pop phenomenon on the other.

It didn’t help that Hindemith’s Konzertmusik begins in that rather stolid mode of expression that is one of this composer’s less endearing traits.  By taking woodwinds and percussion out of the orchestral mix, Hindemith was apparently aiming to create a kind of Tracy-and-Hepburn chemistry between the bumptious brass and the silky strings.

The composer asked that the string section be as large as possible, and on Thursday the Symphony Hall stage was stuffed wall-to-wall with string players.  But the piece’s opening brass statement was so densely packed, pumped, and aggressive that no string section, however large, could stand up to it.  Frühbeck allowed that imbalance to remain, perhaps as a metaphor for alienation or inequality.

In the second and concluding movement, however, all that changed, and the opposites attracted after all.  Brass accents enhanced an incisive fast fugue for strings.  The strings sang out a big, beautiful melody in unison, subtly reinforced by trombone at its climax.  Trumpet and trombone discovered their lyrical side in gleaming solos.  The sounds of metal and gut mingled in new and intriguing ways.

Amidst it all, the taciturn north-German composer seemed to don a lampshade and join the party, enlivening the music with syncopated rhythms and bluesy harmonies.  And so, thanks to an alert and imaginative performance by Frühbeck and his players, Hindemith’s odd-couple piece eventually realized its promise of audience-pleasing brilliance and lyricism.

“Audience-pleasing” is not a term usually applied to the music of Béla Bartók, but the perennial presence of his Concerto for Orchestra on symphony programs speaks for itself. It is one of the most distinguished commissions of the BSO and its former music director Serge Koussevitzky, not only for its musical result but for its humanitarian motive.

Uprooted by war from the Hungarian soil that had nourished his art, the great composer had landed, ill and financially destitute, in New York, where Koussevitzky found him and requested a new work for orchestra.  The commission provided both a much-needed fee and the spur to create music again, and Bartók composed the five-movement work with remarkable speed in less than two months.

It isn’t always accurate to equate speed of composition with a feeling of spontaneity in the music, but this piece has a blithe, free-spirited quality that shone through the BSO’s assured performance on Thursday night.

The orchestra’s ownership of the work was never in doubt.  The playing was incisive, the ensemble tight, the balance between sections adjusted just right.  All this perfectly tuned machine needed was a driver to point it in the right direction.

Maestro Frühbeck did not seem to fill that role on Thursday night.  While one must respect an older conductor’s need to make his night’s work less physically taxing, leading this performance from a low swivel chair appeared to leave the orchestra too much on its own.  One was unavoidably reminded of a man enthusiastically conducting his living-room stereo.

As a result, much of the music came up short on spark and character.  In this “concerto” with many soloists, principal players such as flutist Elizabeth Rowe could be counted on to project their solos with verve even in an uninspiring context.  But the second movement’s “game of pairs” did not sound particularly playful, the bizarre mingling of nostalgia with the grotesque in the fourth movement’s “interrupted intermezzo” came across as routine, and Frühbeck’s urgent beating of slow themes in the third movement did not produce urgent playing.

Only the finale’s furious energy seemed self-sustaining, and even there the orchestra’s energy ebbed in the interludes.  Overall, Thursday’s performance was a lucid illustration of the work, but something less than a compelling performance.

Regarding Lang Lang’s appearance between these two works, what can one say?  Seeing what passes as a Romantic piano superstar these days makes one miss the late Van Cliburn even more.

It would take a social psychologist, not a music critic, to explain the Lang Lang phenomenon.  Lang’s playing—the splattered forte octaves, the mushy pianissimos, the impulsive rushing, the exaggerated rubato—is not much different from what one hears on any corridor of practice rooms in any music conservatory in the country.  How this particular micro-virtuoso with a certain set of onstage mannerisms became the toast of the town—or at least a large, vocal segment of the town– is something best understood by those who study the cult of celebrity.

Rachmaninoff’s Second Concerto is a celebrity in its own right, used as a backdrop for romantic movies and figure skating, mined for pop songs, endlessly imitated in the semiclassical demimonde.  But it is quality goods, a true original, and it deserved better than it got from Lang and a dispirited-sounding BSO Thursday night.

The program will be repeated at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday.; (617) 266-1200.

Posted in Performances

2 Responses to “Frühbeck de Burgos leads Symphony Hall homecoming for favorite BSO commissions”

  1. Posted Mar 01, 2013 at 11:39 pm by e

    Lang Lang was fantastic on Thursday!

  2. Posted Mar 05, 2013 at 5:21 pm by phil

    It would take a social psychologist, not a music critic, to explain the Lang Lang phenomenon.

    — But it does take a music critic, like you, to experience the maddening pain of jealousy

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