Mena, Neuburger and BSO give strong advocacy to Schubert, Schumann and Anderson premiere

January 27, 2017 at 10:49 am

By Aaron Keebaugh

Jean-Frédéric Neuburger performed Schumann's Piano Concerto Thursday night with Juanjo Mena and the BSO. Photo: Hilary Scott

Jean-Frédéric Neuburger performed Schumann’s Piano Concerto Thursday night with Juanjo Mena and the BSO. Photo: Hilary Scott

In the summer of 2015, Tanglewood’s Festival of Contemporary Music programmed Julian Anderson’s Second String Quartet. While in the Berkshires for the premiere, the composer heard a performance of Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony, given by the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra under direction of Christoph von Dohnányi. What Anderson heard in the symphony’s final movement fueled the idea for a new work. The result of this inspiration was Incantesimi, an eight-minute concert opener for orchestra that weaves together five separate musical ideas.

The piece was co-commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Royal Philharmonic Society of London, and the Berlin Philharmonic, who gave the work its world premiere in June 2016. Thursday night at Symphony Hall, Juanjo Mena, filling in for an ailing Christoph von Dohnányi, led the BSO in the work’s American performance.

Anderson is one of the most acclaimed composers on the scene today and has written music of vivid color and rhythmic impact. His music has been programmed on concerts of the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra and BSO in the past, but Incantesimi marks his first work to be heard in Symphony Hall in seventeen years.

Like his previous orchestral scores Khorovod and The Discovery of Heaven, Incantesimi is woven from disjointed textures. Some sounds, such as the pristine chords that open the piece, gleam. Contrabassoons supply an earthy snarl in support. But where Incantesimi departs from those previous works is in its lyricism. A long, languid melody for English horn sounds through the piece like a light in the mist. The piece, too, unfolds slowly, the music sorting through the five themes without one dominating another. An energetic middle section builds into a powerful wall of sound. In the end, the English horn theme emerges to bring the piece to a quiet conclusion.

With broad waving gestures, Mena drew playing of bold intensity. English hornist Robert Sheena performed the melody at the heart of this work with searching expression. The audience gave the piece and its composer a warm reception.

Schumann’s Piano Concerto, heard in the concert’s first half Thursday night, is also a work rich in melody. The evening’s soloist was Jean-Frédéric Neuburger, who made his return to the BSO to debut as pianist. On his previous visit in November 2015, the orchestra played his composition Aube, a work of slowly shifting textures and color effects. 

Schumann’s concerto doesn’t have the blazing firepower of similar works by Liszt and Rachmaninoff. Instead, it is a piece that abounds with lyricism, and that is how Neuburger and Mena approached it.

Neuburger is a sensitive musician, coaxing smooth, silver-laced lines from the piano. His touch was soft and his phrasing was spacious. The main theme of the first movement, Schumann’s etching of his wife Clara’s name in musical notation, was played with tasteful rubato. Neuburger’s cascading figures seemed to float with a tender delicacy. Even the final movement, a romping Allegro Vivace, had a supple touch, and Neuburger found the grace and elegance of Schumann’s songs. 

Aside from a few untidy horn calls in the final movement, the orchestral tapestry was plush. Mena wove a feathery bed of accompaniment that was finely attuned to Neuburger’s phrasing. 

For an encore, Neuburger offered a gentle and melodious rendition of the second movement from Bach’s Italian Concerto. 

Last week Mena led a riveting and dramatic account of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony. His approach to Schubert’s Great Symphony in C major, which made up the second half ofThursday’s program, revealed a similarly energetic reading.

Well-trodden works like Schubert’s final and longest symphony spin with numerous repetitions, and conductors can be tempted to run the piece on autopilot.

Not so with Mena. Leading with gentle bounce, he conducted a reading that brimmed with forward momentum. As in last week’s Tchaikovsky, tempos were brisk, which gave the music a dance-like feel. The dotted figures of the first movement’s primary theme sounded with crispness. Fine playing from oboist John Ferrillo and flutist Elizabeth Rowe brought a nimble grace to the second movement.

Nowhere was the dance feel more palpable than in the third movement’s trio. While the scherzo had an edge and burnished tone from the strings, the trio glided like a ländler. Mena built the statements incrementally in a long crescendo. The final movement, in its brisk fanfare figures and triplets, put an exclamation point on a fine performance. One looks forward to Mena’s return to the BSO podium in the near future.

The program will be repeated 1:30 p.m. Friday and 8 p.m. Saturday at Symphony Hall.; 888-266-1200.


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