Dutoit and Fischer play it cool, wonderfully, with BSO

February 27, 2015 at 4:02 pm

By David Wright

Julia Fischer performed Brahms’ Violin Concerto with Charles Dutoit and the BSO Thursday night. Photo: Winslow Townson

The Boston Symphony Orchestra played hard under Charles Dutoit’s direction Thursday night, but it never lost its cool.

Although the Swiss conductor has a well-earned reputation as a dramatist on the podium, on Thursday he appeared to be saving the theatrical fireworks for next week’s performances of Szymanowski’s opera King Roger as he calmly guided the orchestra through music by Stravinsky, Debussy, and Brahms.

Objectivity, of course, is what it’s all about in Stravinsky’s “Dumbarton Oaks” Concerto, composed in 1938, by which time the composer had developed an aversion to performers’ egos and “interpretation.”  His score doesn’t even give the performer words like “allegro” or “adagio” to interpret, but indicates the correct tempo with metronome numbers.

The piece, inspired by (and sometimes even quoting) Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, was commissioned to celebrate the patron’s thirtieth wedding anniversary, but apart from a certain general lightness of tone you’d hardly know it from the music.  Tender sentiments are not heard until the final movement, and then only briefly.

However, there was ample pleasure to be had Thursday in the way the orchestra stepped out briskly in the first movement, making everything feel “up” and balletic.  The 15-member ensemble was made up of the orchestra’s most senior players, emphasizing that this piece is a Baroque-style “concerto for everybody,” and indeed vivid individual contributions were made by all.

Even at four-to-a-bar instead of three, the dainty second movement felt like a minuet, with William R. Hudgins cracking the clarinet jokes.  The finale had a touch of the good old Rite-of-Spring-style menace and thump to it, just enough to serve as a foil to the strings’ tender interlude in this well-gauged performance.

In the latter stages of his career, Debussy also seemed to be taking a more objective stance in his music.  Colorful as they are, his Images for orchestra, composed in 1909, hold their subjects at a painterly distance, and tend to come across as life observed rather than life felt.

Dutoit did not press the point Thursday night, but allowed the composer’s scenic panels—bright and blatant one moment and ambiguous the next—to unfold in their own way.  The orchestra sounded magnificent—taut, well-knit, the tone colors saturated but still transparent.

The title of the opening “Gigue” (jig) on an English folk tune seemed to promise a whirling dance, but the composer’s ironic take on the scene made the music start and stop so often that Dutoit did well just to hold it together.

The second movement, “Ibéria,” mobilized the military drum, tambourine, celesta, and chimes to evoke those familiar Spanish traits of hot-blooded passion, nocturnal sensuality, and religiosity.  The fast, brilliant sections could have used a little less objectivity and more impulsiveness; who ever heard of deliberate castanets?

“Rondes de printemps” awakened slowly and hesitantly to spring, but when Debussy found the tarantella-like dance rhythm the orchestra responded like a well-tuned engine, generating excitement as it chugged to the work’s abrupt finish.

At the bows, following current BSO custom, conductor Dutoit motioned many players up for individual recognition, paying particular attention to principal violist Steven Ansell, who had contributed an evocative solo (doubling with oboist John Ferrillo) in “Ibéria.”  In a droll move, since the violist’s location obliged him always to play while facing upstage, conductor Dutoit got him up and playfully turned him around so the audience could get a good look at him, to his visible embarrassment.

For lovers of Brahms’s music as well as those who read about Brahms the man, the special thing about this composer is the way the tenderest human emotions peek out from behind his forbidding exterior.  The objectivity, the irony, the brusqueness were a shell protecting the vulnerable creature inside.  The challenge for the interpreter of his music is to do justice to both.

Brahms began his Violin Concerto as a greeting and a challenge to an old friend, the violinist Joseph Joachim, who then collaborated on the composition—a tale often told, though rarely as touchingly and humorously as in Jan Swafford’s program note for Thursday’s concert.

The tale has been told so much because it captures in human terms what the music seems to speak of—the tenderness of old friendship, the memories of good times and bad, and yes, the jostling of two guys with big male egos.  (No doubt this latter was the reason conductor Hans von Bülow called this piece a “concerto against the violin.”)

Julia Fischer’s performance in the solo part Thursday was impressive from start to finish.  Her tone, though not the biggest, was wonderfully clear and well-produced in all registers and dynamics, and was a strong presence in the hall.  Even though Dutoit didn’t hold back in the concerto’s symphonic-style exposition or the big tuttis that followed, Fischer’s entrances were so arresting that one hardly noticed the steep drop in volume.

Fischer had the slashing (but never harsh) attack for the first movement’s marcato theme, the silvery tone for the lyrical moments, and the ability to turn the sharp corners of the music’s changing moods seamlessly.  Her phrasing felt natural and right, and the exceptional trueness of her intonation was a delight to the ear.  And she certainly got the two-guys thing.

It did, however, feel as though that cool breeze was still blowing through the hall during the Brahms, as it had during the previous works.  To this listener, on the scale of stoic-to-sentimental by which one tends to measure performances of this composer, Fischer and Dutoit seemed to lean toward the former.

Clearly, not everyone present agreed about that.  The performance of the brief Adagio, which struck this observer as rather plain (and bedeviled by struggling horns), prompted spontaneous clapping from several listeners.

Violinist and conductor did not put on big stomping boots for the finale as some interpreters do, but kept it light and brisk throughout, with Fischer producing especially sweet tone and graceful phrasing in the episode. Another word for cool is poised, and the poise of Fischer and Dutoit served this movement well, bringing it to a happy and brilliant close.

The audience sprang to its feet, registering about an 8 or 9 on the 10-point standing-ovation scale (slow ones score lower) and calling the artists back to the stage several times.  Fischer played an unaccompanied encore, the finale from Hindemith’s Sonata in G minor, which displayed (as the Brahms could not) not just fast technique, but the full, remarkable range of touches and articulations she has at her command.

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Saturday.  bso.org617-266-1200.




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