Sung, BSO open new year with stirring Dvořák and a pair of Mendelssohns

January 4, 2019 at 11:22 am

By Jonathan Blumhofer

Ingrid Fliter performed Mendelssohn's Piano Concerto No. 1 with Shiyeon Sung conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra Thursday night. Photo: Robert Torres

Ingrid Fliter performed Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto No. 1 with Shiyeon Sung conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra Thursday night. Photo: Robert Torres

Few would peg the Boston Symphony Orchestra as a musically progressive organization. But Thursday night’s concert, the ensemble’s first of the New Year, deviated from the norm in some welcome ways.

Most notably, the evening was led by Shiyeon Sung, the first woman to conduct a BSO subscription series since Anne-Sophie Mutter in 2011.

A former BSO assistant conductor, Sung’s unassuming stage presence masks a charismatic musician with strong interpretive insights. That was abundantly clear in the stirring account of Antonin Dvořák’s Symphony No. 8, which concluded the evening.

This 1890 score, flush with allusions to Dvořák’s Czech homeland, is among the 19th-century’s most ingratiating, and Thursday’s performance brimmed with warmth and detail. The first movement’s opening theme moved with purpose and soul, Sung  drawing playing of robust energy from the orchestra. The burbling woodwind writing at the start of the third blossomed naturally.

Sung led a potent account of the majestic slow movement, the contrasting paragraphs carefully paced and expertly shaped. The finale’s coda blazed, while the gestural strands that tie the outer movements together – the play of bittersweet lyricism, giddy ecstasy, and evocations of the natural world – were all subtly underlined.

Throughout, the BSO played with spirit and color. Solos, especially those those from concertmaster Tamara Smirnova and principal flute Elizabeth Rowe, were spot-on and balances carefully controlled. Indeed, Sung’s command over the proceedings meant that, while the score’s climaxes were full-bodied and thrilling, they were never shrill or unruly. Nor did Sung’s interpretation lose itself in the details: rather, the Symphony’s whole canvas unfolded with satisfying logic.

The same could be said of Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel’s Overture in C. The older sister of Felix, Fanny Mendelssohn was an accomplished composer and pianist, though the conventions of the day – rigorously upheld, most crucially, by her younger brother – meant that a musical career was out of the question. Still, she composed prolifically, mostly songs and chamber music, while this 1832 score is her only purely orchestral work.

The overture is an attractive piece, opening with a slow, songful section that gives way to an energetic main body. Some elements are cut from similar cloth as her brother’s overtures, but none of Fanny’s writing sounds derivative, just stylistically related.

Performing the Overture for the first time, they BSO gave a zesty reading, playing up the score’s Beethovenian allusions and conversational aspects (like the flute-violin dialogue before the end) with aplomb.

The Piano Concerto No. 1 by Fanny’s more celebrated brother Felix, is a similarly enticing piece. Written in 1831, it’s a work that marries ferocious technical demands with an almost easy-going sense of melodic development and spiritual freshness.

Making her BSO subscription series debut, soloist Ingrid Fliter certainly had all the concerto’s notes in hand. Yet the Argentine pianist seemed intent on finding something darker than usual in its pages—treating the work’s virtuosic demands as diabolical and furious, more Late Romantic than early 19th century.

Fliter’s solo playing in the first movement was dark and muscular but the soloist missed the essential graceful charm of the score, the playing lacking any sense of impish, dancing wit. The finale, shaped a bit more generously, was brisk and fiery but similarly lacking joy and effervescence. Only in the middle movement did Fliter tap into the music’s charms, playing with golden tone and unaffected expression.

For her part, Sung drew out an orchestral accompaniment that was taut, vivid, and well-balanced. But the cumulative effect was of pianist and orchestra at cross-purposes.

Thursday’s audience seemed to have few qualms however, cheering Fliter emphatically and receiving a beautifully played encore of Chopin’s Nocturne in D-flat. 

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

Posted in Performances


One Response to “Sung, BSO open new year with stirring Dvořák and a pair of Mendelssohns”

  1. Posted Jan 05, 2019 at 6:51 pm by Jiyong Park

    Sung is passive and fantastic conduct.

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