After some tentative moments, the honeymoon continues for Nelsons, BSO

October 2, 2014 at 12:03 pm

By David Wright

Andris Nelsons led the BSO in a program of Beethoven, Bartok, and Tchaikovsky Wednesday night at Symphony Hall. Photo: Winslow Townson

 In Symphony Hall Wednesday night, it was the morning after the wedding, and the bride and groom were eyeing each other warily.

Gone were the TV cameras, the bright lights, the star soloists, the standing ovation just for stepping onstage that greeted Andris Nelsons on Saturday, as he conducted his first concert as music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.  Wednesday was the first day of the rest of Nelsons’s and the BSO’s life.

After his entrance to warm but not ecstatic applause, Nelsons and the orchestra swung into a Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony that didn’t quite swing, and one was reminded that this conductor and his band are still pretty new to each other.

Although Nelsons’s gestures were clear, assertive, even insistent, what came back from the players sounded tentative and out of focus.  Coordination between sections, and among the strings in staccato passages, was just a little off.

As a result, one was more aware of an orchestra straining to please than of Beethoven dancing, teasing, and poking us in the ribs.  While they faithfully rendered the score, the players never fully relaxed into the first movement’s colorful themes, rude sforzandi, and stormy development, or got the scherzo (joke) in the Allegretto scherzando.

They did, however, catch the bovine character of the Tempo di menuetto, and the naïve sweetness of the horn duet in the ländler trio.  By the time it reached the exuberant finale, the orchestra was showing the precision it was capable of, and that gave the music the lightness and bounce it needed to delight the audience.

Finishing strong was also the key to success in Bartók’s Suite from The Miraculous Mandarin, Op. 19, which began with a touch of tentativeness in the strings, but went on to turn the composer’s inventive scoring into richly atmospheric effects.  Principal clarinetist William R. Hudgins, playing “the Girl” in Bartók’s pantomime, fascinated and seduced in his long solos.  The brass, by turns passionate and just plain loud, turned up the heat, and the conclusion in a pounding two-to-a-bar was a thriller.

Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony, the “Pathétique,” is so full of sad, drooping melodies (except, of course, in its wildly exciting march-scherzo movement) that the whole orchestra has to pull together just to sustain the line.  Despite their earlier difficulties, the players did just that for Nelsons, in a performance that kept going from good to better.

Memorable moments of the first movement included Richard Svoboda’s ominous opening bassoon solo, the tender vulnerability of the muted strings in the falling “pathétique” theme, the motoric excitement of the development section, and the long, expertly managed crescendos and diminuendos.

Opening the second movement, the cellos sounded as they had been waltzing in 5/4 time their whole life, and the other sections picked up the swinging beat.  The sound approached perfection in its finely gauged, ever-shifting balances among the sections—perhaps a chilly kind of perfection, but still gratifying to hear.

Near perfection also describes the march-scherzo, a thrilling yet firmly controlled dash from end to end.  All sections, especially the formerly wayward strings, were exceptionally light, tight, and articulate in the playful sections and brilliant in the bold march theme.

After so much excitement, sustaining interest in a slow, tragic last movement is no easy matter, but Nelsons and the players held the lines taut, and the effect was riveting.  The wailing theme at the opening was taken a little faster than usual, the better to linger over yet another falling theme later.  Now the occasional ragged entrance of the strings seemed more a sign of emotional involvement than of inattention.

The buildups to expressive climaxes were even longer and more skillfully sustained than before, and the long decrescendos more devastating, especially the final sinking down to nothing in the cellos and basses.

Time was, a blue moon happened more often than solo bows for orchestra players.  Then the practice became more common.  On Wednesday, after every piece, Nelsons was handing them out like Halloween candy, gesticulating from the podium to get nearly every non-string player up one by one, some even wearing a slightly embarrassed, “what’d I do?” expression.

But one couldn’t blame the maestro for acting a little besotted.  It’s still early in this marriage but the honeymoon appears to be going well.

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Thursday and 1:30 p.m. Friday.; 617-266-1200.

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