Rands’ restless “Symphonic Fantasy” proves worth the wait in belated BSO premiere

April 15, 2022 at 11:57 am

By Aaron Keebaugh

Alan Gilbert conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra in the world premiere of Bernard Rands’ “Symphonic Fantasy in One Movement” Thursday night at Symphony Hall. Photo: Winslow Townson

Bernard Rands had avoided taking inspiration from existing standard repertoire. But after talking with conductor William Boughton about how he would fill a recent commission, the British-American composer turned to Sibelius’s Symphony No. 7 as a model.

Drawn to its logic and flow, Rands found an original blend of style and substance in his Symphonic Fantasy in One Movement. Thursday night at Symphony Hall, conductor Alan Gilbert led the Boston Symphony Orchestra in its belated world premiere.

Commissioned by the BSO and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the score was originally scheduled for a July 2020 premiere at Tanglewood before the pandemic forced its cancellation. Thursday’s long-awaited first hearing met every expectation.

That is due to Rands’s thoughtful yet attractive compositional style. The 88-year-old composer has blazed a unique path between the mid-century avant-garde (he studied with Luigi Dallapiccola and Luciano Berio) and a more direct, melodically expressive medium. While his Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, performed by the BSO in 2014, revealed more of the former aesthetic, the Symphonic Fantasy reflects the best of both worlds, with a bristly harmonic language that unfolds in an emotionally charged, 20-minute span.

The score recalls Debussy as much as Sibelius, albeit with a dissonant twist. Yet Rands never settles in the moment. Instead, the music builds a seismic friction through constantly shifting textures.

A sense of organic unity is evident from the onset. Dark sliding figures in the basses—reminiscent of the opening of Sibelius’s Seventh— are met by murmuring winds and brass that encompass the full ensemble. Moments of lyricism interrupt the churning intensity. Cellos, violins, and French horns take turns in sweeping melodies that suddenly halt on ear-shattering chords. Agitated string figures intervene and drive the work to an abrupt but satisfying conclusion.

Gilbert drew a vivid musical canvas, drawing out each phrase with a clear vision of what was coming next. The Symphonic Fantasy stands as one of Rands’ most arresting recent achievements, and the audience rewarded its composer with a rousing ovation.

Debussy’s La Mer offered a more sensuous complement. With its play of harmony and timbre, this score from 1905 invites wide interpretation.

Gilbert’s reading eschewed impressionistic distance in favor of  Technicolor spectacle. Yet he led with a firm sense of tension and release. The opening phrases of “From Dawn to Noon on the Sea” seemed to emerge from the ether, the woodwinds and strings bringing more light than shadow. Fleet tempos mid-movement and in “Play of the Waves” brought a sense of power and urgency.

Gilbert’s close-up approach managed to keep a perfect balance between parts in “Dialogue of Wind and Sea,” with brass figures delivering palpable weight in the vibrant closing bars.

A similar feel for depth and momentum also marked Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, which came after intermission.

Joshua Bell performed Beethoven’s Violin Concerto with Alan Gilbert and the BSO Thursday night. Photo: Winslow Townson

Joshua Bell, the evening’s soloist, worked like an actor realizing a dramatic scene. The violinist took a lyrical approach that revealed the full dimensions of every technical flourish. Gilbert drew the requisite fire from the paired down forces.

Both rendered the Allegro non troppo in a brisk tempo, with Bell’s figures coming across with warm resonance and grandeur. The soloist’s generous rubato shading, sensitively matched by Gilbert and the orchestra, rendered the pathos from the lyrical themes.

Such improvisatory freedom brought additional tender moments. Gilbert coaxed broad phrases from the Larghetto; Bell’s gleaming arpeggios revealed a Mozartean grace. All charted the Rondo with rustic verve.

Bell’s own cadenza provided the greatest fireworks. Like a true showman, he tossed off the double stops and running figures with a heroic assurance that ultimately brought the audience to its feet.

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

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