Nelsons, BSO, Ma and chorus rove widely in a night of discoveries

November 21, 2014 at 2:17 pm

By David Wright

Yo-Yo Ma performs Prokofiev’s “Symphony-Concerto” with Andris Nelsons and the BSO Thursday night. Photo: Stu Rosner

After Thursday night’s concert, it’s going to be harder to complain that Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony Orchestra only program “safe” repertoire.

It’s true that, in the early going, the newly installed music director has presented his credentials in familiar audience-pleasers by the likes of Tchaikovsky and Sibelius.  But Thursday’s BSO program of a world premiere, a Boston premiere, and rarely-heard works of Prokofiev and Rachmaninoff took listeners out of their comfort zone and on a rewarding voyage of discovery.

The program also marked Nelsons’s first collaboration with three local institutions: the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, directed by John Oliver, which performed in three of the four works Thursday night; composer John Harbison, represented by his charming occasional piece Koussevitzky Said:; and cellist Yo-Yo Ma, soloist in Prokofiev’s stupefying Symphony-Concerto.

The BSO’s Latvian invasion continued with the world premiere of Lakes Awake at Dawn, a lush and poetic work for chorus and orchestra by Nelsons’ countryman Ēriks Ešenvalds.  Composed to a text in English that was partly a translation from a Latvian poem by Inga Ābele and partly compiled by the composer, the piece had been commissioned by the U.K.’s City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and the BSO to celebrate the tenures (ending and beginning, respectively, this season) of Nelsons as music director.

Ešenvalds’ full-bodied writing for chorus seemed to spring directly from the Baltic tradition of mass community singing, but there was nothing blatant or folksy about the way he wrapped post-Impressionist harmonies around the dark, anxious text by the poet, and then his own more hopeful words.

The orchestra’s ripe, blended sound brought to mind northern symphonists from Sibelius to Vaughan Williams.  In fact, other than a few special effects such as strings playing glissandos ad libitum, there was little to indicate the piece hadn’t been composed in 1924 instead of 2014.

But a piece doesn’t have to be groundbreaking to be good, and Ešenvalds’ pre-dawn meditation offered beautiful sound and psychological insight, sensitively drawn out by conductor (and honoree) Nelsons.

Preceding the Ešenvalds, and opening the program, was another kind of tribute to a conductor, Harbison’s Koussevitzky Said: for chorus and orchestra.  Composed to precede Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony at the closing concert of the 75th anniversary season of the Tanglewood Music Festival in 2012, this “choral scherzo” commemorated the BSO’s legendary Russian-born maestro (and festival founder) Serge Koussevitzky with a setting of some of his sayings, lovingly preserved in all their fractured English.

Beginning and ending with the conductor’s famous words of confidence in American composers—“The next Beethoven will from Colorado come”—Harbison’s piece gave the TFC its best contrapuntal workout of the evening, tossing the first three words from section to section as if desperately seeking that Rocky Mountain Messiah.

There were also moments of warm recollection, and of course a hard-to-sing-in-tune section on the repeated line, “If not in tune.”  Through it all, Nelsons conducted with élan, and the chorus’s diction was as lucid as the Russian maestro’s syntax was murky.

These two concise, attractive choral works were followed by something completely different, Prokofiev’s extravagant Symphony-Concerto for cello and orchestra, Op. 125, featuring Yo-Yo Ma in a brilliant performance that evoked memories of the young cellist who inspired the piece.

Prokofiev was ailing from a stroke and assailed on all sides by Soviet apparatchiks for “formalism”—i.e., preferring to write symphonies and concertos rather than hymns of praise to Stalin—when he heard a 20-year-old cellist at the Moscow Conservatory playing a half-forgotten cello concerto of his.  He was so impressed that, on the spot, he promised the young man a new, improved version of the concerto.

That cellist was Mstislav Rostropovich, and as the two men’s relationship (both working and personal) blossomed, Prokofiev delighted in throwing new challenges to the soloist in the concerto, and eventually adding so many fresh orchestral colors to the score that he renamed it Symphony-Concerto.

On Thursday, the first movement was more concerto than symphony, a march (vibrantly projected by Ma) that tended to dissolve into fantastic passages featuring woodwinds.

It was in the sprawling second movement—modestly marked Allegro giusto (fast and in exact time), but really a cornucopia of different speeds and moods—that one heard the newly inspired composer eagerly dusting off all his old tricks and inventing new ones.  Ma was all over the place with blazing scales one moment, resonant double stops the next, mixing bowed and pizzicato notes, crossing strings so fast his arm was a blur.

The piece may have been new to Ma as well as the audience, because in the midst of all the excitement, his printed music suddenly refused to lie flat on the stand and started to close.  Nelsons tried to reach down from the podium and catch it, conducting all the while; the situation was saved when the orchestra’s assistant principal violist Cathy Basrak left her post and crouched next to Ma as his impromptu page turner for the rest of the movement.

After that, the work’s closing theme-and-variations seemed like a stroll in the park—maybe an autumn stroll, since here is where Prokofiev dipped most deeply and often into his orchestral paintbox.  But the closing pages belonged to the cellist, twirling out brilliant arpeggios in his instrument’s stratosphere.

Irrepressible as ever during the bows, Ma hugged musicians right and left (especially violist Basrak) and poked a little fun at the modest maestro’s tendency to melt back into the orchestra by retreating to the last row of violins and grinning at Nelsons across nearly the whole width of the stage.

Following a well-earned intermission, Rachmaninoff’s choral “poem” The Bells closed the program.  In terms of expression, this piece exists somewhere between the incantatory character of his liturgical music and the gorgeous melodies and coloristic effects of his concertos and symphonies.  Born of a complex and fruitful interaction among the importance of bells in Russian culture and this composer’s music on the one hand, and the Russian poet Konstantin Balmont’s interpretation of a poem on the cycle of life by Edgar Allan Poe on the other, the work is, for all its grandeur and color, more of an invitation to meditation than an overtly Romantic statement.

Without a Yo-Yo Ma in the driver’s seat, the newness of this work to the orchestra was a little more evident, as Nelsons and his players and singers painstakingly put every detail in place.  That said, the details were beautifully and energetically rendered, and the performance gave one plenty to meditate on.

Why, for example, did Rachmaninoff swim against the tide of his text?  Poe’s metaphor of bells—silver for youth, golden for marriage, brass for loss and grief, iron for death—brought from the composer the expected sparkly, high-pitched first movement, a surprisingly funereal setting for marriage in the second movement, an energetic but not very scary evocation of life’s alarms in the third, and despite the last movement’s unremittingly gloomy text, a rather contented-sounding finale with even a hint of a Rachmaninoff Big Tune.  It seemed as though a peculiarly Russian sense of death in the midst of life and vice versa was at work.

Each of the three vocal soloists, filling the hall without strain and well matched in timbre, led the way in one movement.  Tenor Pavel Černoch sounded clear and, well, bell-like in the silver-bells opening.  Soprano Victoria Yastrebova sang of the golden bells with considerable dynamic range and shapely phrasing.  The composer’s surprisingly vibrant view of death’s iron bells suited the bold, forward bass-baritone of Kostas Smoriginas.

Within a somewhat narrow color range, the chorus responded imaginatively to the composer’s musical metaphors, from the second movement’s subtle bell-ringing effects to the agitated staccato and swooning legato of the third.

One was left at the end contemplating the pre-war year 1913, during which both this week’s and last week’s BSO program closers—Rachmaninoff’s The Bells and Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring—were composed.   That certainly was an era of aesthetic diversity in new music, and the two recently composed pieces on Thursday’s program were reminders that we are living in another one today.

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Saturday.; 617-266-1200.

Posted in Performances

One Response to “Nelsons, BSO, Ma and chorus rove widely in a night of discoveries”

  1. Posted Nov 22, 2014 at 2:26 pm by Stephen Owades

    The Tanglewood Festival Chorus has sung under Andris Nelsons before, in a performance of Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms with the BSO at Tanglewood (July 15, 2012), so this wasn’t Maestro Nelsons’s “first collaboration” with the TFC. He had been scheduled to lead the Verdi Requiem with the BSO and TFC in the summer of 2011, but cancelled that appearance due to the impending birth of his first child.

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