Boston Symphony opens season with a blast of keyboard virtuosity

September 25, 2016 at 12:34 pm

By Aaron Keebaugh

Lang Lang performed Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 3 with Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony Orchestra in their season-opening concert Saturday night. Photo: Michael Blanchard

Lang Lang performed Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3 with Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony Orchestra in their season-opening concert Saturday night. Photo: Michael Blanchard

The list of soloists for the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s 2016-2017 season reads like a Who’s-Who compendium of great pianists. This season will feature performances by Leif Ove Andsnes, Emanuel Ax, Yefim Bronfman, Kirill Gerstein, Menahem Pressler, and Radu Lupu, among others.

Saturday evening’s season-opening concert, led by Andris Nelsons, spotlighted Lang Lang, one of most exhilarating and animated pianists on the scene today.

Since his debut nearly two decades ago, the Chinese pianist has risen to rock-star status. His playing has relaxed over the past few years and he has embraced a nuanced flow and presence at the keyboard. But to some listeners, he remains a polarizing figure who offers performances cast more in sight than in sound.

His work of choice Saturday night, Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3, offered both, and was a spectacular vehicle for the superstar pianist to show off his unparalleled virtuosity.

Prokofiev’s ebullient concerto is a tour de force, full of sparkling lines and knuckle-busting passages. Lang Lang performed the lightening-fast figures of the outer movements with precision. His playing was remarkable for its clarity of tone and technical prowess, and he coaxed a range of timbres from the instrument. The romping sections of this concerto came off with stark power.

Yet more than fireworks marked this performance. The pianist supplied a smooth musicality and refinement to the slow sections of each movement, shading his phrases with gentle rubato in places. Lang Lang also found the haunting mystery of the searching passages that mark each of the three movements. 

The Boston Symphony Orchestra, under Nelsons’ careful guidance, responded with sensitivity and commitment, with the conductor drawing sheets of luminous sound from the strings and winds in the concerto’s intimate sections.

The audience was clearly enthralled with Lang Lang’s showmanship and applauded after each movement. The pianist returned the warm feelings with a dreamy and searching encore, Manuel Ponce’s Intermezzo No. 1.

The second half of the concert was dedicated to Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition.

Warhorses such as this one are fine vehicles for conductors like Nelsons, who possess a clear eye for the details of the score. The conductor brought out aspects of the music rarely heard in this popular work. He paid close attention to Mussorgsky’s countermelodies and the colorful effects of Ravel’s orchestral canvas.

In “Gnomus,” the BSO strings were fittingly slithery and awkward. The “Ballet of Chicks in their Shells” bubbled with quick and witty wind figures, and the “Hut of Baba Yaga” took off with driving energy, showcasing the full powers of the orchestra.

The brass had a superb night, supplying a sturdy wall of sound in the “Catacombs” and “Great Gate of Kiev.”

Principal trumpeter Thomas Rolfs has fared better in past performances of parts of the work, with his solo in “Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle” suffering from a few blips. But his rendition of the opening “Promenade” was smooth and hymn-like. 

Principal tubist Mike Roylance lofted a singing, melancholy solo in “Bydlo,” and saxophonist Tom Martin floated a silky melody in “The Old Castle,” which sounded with particular mystery under Nelsons’ careful tempo.

The music of Shostakovich has been a staple of the Andris Nelsons era. Saturday’s concert opened with the composer’s Festive Overture, which was recorded live for the BSO’s Shostakovich: Under Stalin’s Shadow CD series on the Deutsche Grammophon label.

The orchestra sounded vibrant in the jubilant piece, with brass laying a thick blanket of sound in the opening fanfare. Nelsons took the ensuing section at a brisk pace, coaxing silvery playing from the woodwinds. The strings sounded the steady oom-pah rhythms that propel the piece forward with flair. Trumpets and horns in the balcony joined in for the concluding fanfare, which made for a rousing conclusion to the piece and an exciting beginning to the BSO’s new season.

The program, minus Prokofiev’s concerto, will be repeated 8 p.m. Friday at Symphony Hall. The Boston Symphony Orchestra will perform a concert version of Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier, starring Renée Fleming and Susan Graham 7 p.m.Thursday at Symphony Hall.; 888-266-1200.

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