Davis, BSO deliver rich performances of contrasted symphonies by Harbison, Vaughan Williams

January 11, 2019 at 11:31 am

By Aaron Keebaugh

John Harbison takes a bow with Andrew Davis and the Boston Symphony Orchestra following the performance of his Symphony No. 2 Thursday night. Photo: Hilary Scott

John Harbison takes a bow with Andrew Davis and the Boston Symphony Orchestra following the performance of his Symphony No. 2 Thursday night. Photo: Hilary Scott

In his Symphony No. 2, John Harbison moved beyond  the introspective style for which he was then known, and the taut structure and narrative arc of that 1987 work show a composer fully attuned to the grand symphonic tradition.

Led by guest conductor Sir Andrew Davis and performed as part of the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s weekend celebration of Harbison’s 80th birthday (which was December 20) at Symphony Hall Thursday night, this blazing tour-de-force managed to speak with a fresh voice more than thirty years after its completion.

Composed for the 75th anniversary of the San Francisco Symphony, Harbison’s Second is the most arresting of his early essays in the genre. Like an expressionist painter, the composer crafts a canvas of startling contrasts. Throughout its four unbroken movements brasses snarl, basses and cellos grind out twisted polyrhythms, and woodwind and percussion figures hang in the air like shafts of light. In its climactic points, dense chords ripple through the orchestra like waves.

Davis led an incisive reading that allowed for all of the work’s pent-up drama to unfold naturally. A commanding presence who conducts without a baton, the English conductor mined every nuance from this music without micromanaging. In his hands, the gnarly cross-rhythms surged to dizzying effect. The second movement, entitled “Daylight,” had the power and momentum of a classical scherzo. Davis lingered in the final pages of the score, where brass and woodwind lines coalesced into shimmering sonorities before they evaporated into pulses, and then silence.

Harbison is a fixture in Boston’s musical firmament, and time-tested compositions like this one remind listeners that there is a great deal of music to explore—and reexplore—in our own backyard. Thursday night’s audience seemed to agree with that assessment, as they showered the composer with applause when he took a stage bow.

Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Symphony No. 5, which made up the bulk of Thursday’s program, was also an artistic departure for its seasoned composer.

Written between 1938 and 1943, just as Europe was engulfed in World War II, Vaughan Williams’ Fifth Symphony offers solace in the face of fear.  Drawing upon music from his (temporarily) abandoned opera The Pilgrim’s Progress, the composer, in a break from the severity of his Fourth and Sixth Symphonies, offers a vision of personal spirituality—despite his agnosticism—in its forty-five-minute span.

Vaughan Williams’ symphonies aren’t among the BSO’s usual repertoire, but under Davis’ direction the orchestra vividly captured the composer’s unique, almost choral sound. Trumpets and trombones took on tender warmth in the opening movement while strings framed the woodwinds in placid octaves. In the Scherzo, the strings played with a hushed resonance that barely registered above a whisper. The Romanza, the beating heart of the symphony, was duly reverential as oboist John Ferrillo and English hornist Robert Sheena wove their melodies together in a haunting duet. The trumpet fanfares of the final Passacaglia gleamed before Davis, with gentle gestures, brought the symphony to a serene conclusion.

Alessio Bax performed Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 24 with Andrew Davis conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra Thursday night. Photo: Hilary Scott

Alessio Bax performed Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24 Thursday night. Photo: Hilary Scott

The solo spotlight of the evening fell upon Italian pianist Alessio Bax, who made his BSO debut with Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24. As one of two concertos Mozart cast in the minor key, No. 24 in C minor is rife with dark emotions. Yet the difficult passagework for both hands also make it more of a showpiece than many Mozart works in the genre.

Bax’s rendition resulted in flash and creamy lyricism more than Mozartean clarity. With his bright, beaming tone at the keyboard, Bax played the concerto as if it were an extended song without words. His technique is firm, even spellbinding, though there were moments when his lines could have been shaped with greater precision—his generous use of the pedal made the running figures that pepper the outer movements blur in a fog of sound.

But the first movement’s development section had the requisite fire well suited to the composer’s forward-looking idiom. The cadenza, Bax’s own, offered plush, almost Schubertian contrast. Only in the finale’s triple-meter variation did his lines have the delicacy and crispness of the high Classical style. The second movement found Bax in his most refined moments. Playing with lambent tone, the pianist spun each phrase with the spaciousness of an operatic aria. 

Davis proved a sensitive musical partner as he wove a feathery bed of accompaniment in response, teasing out elegant clarinet countermelodies, and shaping each strain with subtle rubato to reveal that the brilliance of Mozart’s music lies in the details.

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Saturday at Symphony Hall. The Mozart and Vaughan Williams  works will be performed on the Casual Fridays program 8 p.m. Friday at Symphony Hall. bso.org; 888-266-1200

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