Musical perfection, bombast, a wardrobe malfunction and more from Yuja, Nelsons and BSO

September 30, 2022 at 11:59 am

By Jonathan Blumhofer

Yuja Wang performed both Shostakovich piano concertos with Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony Orchestra Thursday night at Symphony Hall. Photo: Aram Boghosian

With superstar pianist Yuja Wang in town to play both of Dmitri Shostakovich’s piano concertos, this week’s Boston Symphony Orchestra concerts promised some fireworks. Those mostly came on cue Thursday night at Symphony Hall. So did a few other things, including a near-train wreck, a wardrobe malfunction, musical perfection, bombast, and a world premiere. If the affair wasn’t exactly Whitmanesque, it did contain multitudes.

At the center of the evening’s excitement were relatively rare outings for the BSO of the Shostakovich concerti.

Written nearly a quarter-century apart, it’s no surprise that each piece inhabits its own, distinctive musical space. The First, which dates from 1935 and includes a solo trumpet plus string accompaniment, is brash and insouciant, gleefully thumbing its nose at stylistic boundaries and, more than once, evoking the soundtrack to a Buster Keaton film (the composer did play piano in silent-movie houses in his youth). In the Second, which Shostakovich wrote for his son, Maxim, the music is more refined, reflecting the clarity and balances (both textural and structural) of Mozart rather than vogueish avant-garde practices circa 1957.

On Thursday, Wang proved an incisive advocate for both.

Her reading of the Concerto No. 1, though a shade blurry in some of the finale’s wilder moments, was broadly acerbic and playful when called for, yet grippingly warm-toned and inward when the moment demanded. Indeed, Wang’s account of the Lento’s brooding lyricism was particularly well shaped and her attention to its nuances of dynamic shadings expertly rendered.

BSO principal trumpet Thomas Rolfs navigated his solos in that movement with glowing color and his playing elsewhere was crisp and brilliant. The accompaniment music director Andris Nelsons drew from the BSO string complement was, at times, potently focused: the short peregrination into the major mode in the Lento was devotional and the orchestra’s interjections in the Moderato fervent.

Yet the outer movements involved moments of spotty ensemble —the scamping violin figures in the first movement didn’t always mesh—and, after exaggeratedly drawing out the finale’s most sarcastic moment (the trumpet solo accompanied by col legno strings and a piano cluster chord), Nelsons nearly missed the cue for the orchestra’s final entrance. As a result, the piece stumbled to its close.

That inauspicious ending was followed, after intermission, by a mishap with Wang’s outfit as she returned to the stage.

But then the air seemed to clear. Certainly, when the pianist reemerged, the Concerto No. 2 unfolded with nary a blemish.

This time, everything clicked. Balances—both within the orchestra and between Wang and the ensemble—were miraculously clean. Articulations from all involved were precisely matched: the pert, jaunty bassoon figures that open the first Allegro set a tone that carried through the score’s twenty-minute duration. Nelsons, who is no speed demon, ensured that the outer movements were bracingly brisk and the finale especially frolicsome. The gorgeous Andante unfolded like a dream. The performance was, in a word, a marvel: exactly what Nelsons and Co. can manage at their best.

Would that such qualities had been similarly lavished on Franz Josef Haydn’s Symphony No. 100. At least Nelsons’ enthusiasm for vigorous tempos didn’t wane. And the BSO woodwind section’s playing was richly blended.

Otherwise, this was big-boned, thick-textured, often blunt Haydn. The filigree-like violin figures in the outer movements tended either to be covered by the rest of the orchestra or, when they spoke, to sound ragged. Rarely did the dynamic level fall below mezzo-forte; as a result, the whole piece – particularly its special moments (like the Allegretto’s “Turkish” climax) – sounded either monodynamic or excessively loud.

Above all, there was little sense of the music’s characteristic charm and humor. Nelsons’ only significant concession to interpretive subtlety was to underline the starts of certain phrases in the Minuet’s Trio. Yet these came out sounding heavy-handed and deliberate. Edge-of-the-seat, revelatory Haydn this was not.

More successful was the world premiere of Julia Adolphe’s Makeshift Castle, a fifteen-minute-long meditation on, in the composer’s words, “contrasting states of permanence and ephemerality.” In musical terms, this basically means that its two movements focus on bold, assertive gestures contrasted with fragile, delicate ones.

On one hearing, the piece might benefit from some trimming: its second section is the more clearly structured and compelling one. Regardless, throughout, Adolphe’s handling of the orchestra is accomplished, especially her melodic writing for low brasses and woodwinds. And her broader musical vocabulary, with one foot in the world of academic complexity and the other more attuned to lyricism and accessibility, is compelling.

Thursday’s account of Makeshift Castle was sensitive and colorful, especially in the closing movement, “Wooden Embers,” with its weaving together of multitudinous musical threads and, at the end, sudden bursts of shimmering light.

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

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