Pratts’ stellar double debut sparks Boston Symphony’s season opener

September 23, 2022 at 12:27 pm

By Aaron Keebaugh

Pianist Awadagin Pratt performed concertos of Bach and Jessie Montgomery in the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s season-opening concert led by Andris Nelsons. Photo: Aram Boghosian

The Boston Symphony Orchestra opened its 143rd season with a new work, a new face, and new musical canvas for conductor Andris Nelsons on Thursday night.

A recent score by Jessie Montgomery and Bach’s Keyboard Concerto in A, both performed by the BSO for the first time, brought pianist Awadagin Pratt to Symphony Hall for a stellar debut. And Gustav Holst’s The Planets provided a new venture for Nelsons, who had never before conducted the work with the orchestra he has now led for nine years.

In each case, the performances invited reflection on Nelsons’s tenure. While the Latvian conductor has consistently explored a wide range of music, the results are sometimes mixed, as was the case Thursday night.

The evening’s highlight was the local premiere of Montgomery’s Rounds for piano and string orchestra. The composer has received deserved acclaim for a unique musical voice that draws inspiration from a variety of sources. Rounds, her first work for piano and orchestra, conjures the flight patterns of migratory birds through a propulsive and atmospheric fifteen minutes.

Montgomery wrote Rounds for Pratt, who premiered it with the Hilton Head Symphony Orchestra this past March. The rippling arpeggios and dissonant clusters that open Rounds fit snuggly under the pianist’s fingers. All the while the strings provide a serene backdrop through pizzicatos and spacious harmonies.

The music unfolds with impeccable logic. Repeated scale figures and wide leaps flower in the solo and ensemble passages to haunting effect. The opening figures finally resolve in a fiery cadenza before the music concludes in a satisfying frenzy of solo bravura.

Pratt proved an ideal protagonist, channeling the shifting colors and live-wire energy of each section. Nelsons’ accompaniment matched the pianist’s zeal to give the score bold advocacy, and the audience showered both the composer and performers with generous applause.

Bach’s Keyboard Concerto in A, BWV 1055, offered supple complement. Originally scored for oboe and strings, this work unfolds as a congenial musical conversation.

Pratt and Nelsons were mostly simpatico partners. The pianist played with chamber-like intimacy, melding each rippling arpeggio with the strings in the outer movements. But the conductor frequently invoked Bach performances of old, the strings wrapping the soloist in a sumptuous blanket of sound that often felt out of place.

That warm approach did make for an arresting Larghetto, where Pratt and Nelsons shaped the music with subtle rubato to reveal its plush lyricism.

Nelsons is a master of such resplendent moments, with his best efforts over the past decade showcased in hefty scores by Shostakovich, Mahler, Strauss, and Wagner.

But the conductor tends to see much of the music he leads through the same Technicolor lens. His reading of The Planets, which came after intermission, suffered from slow tempos that robbed the music of its urgency and nuance.

“Mars” felt more like a world-weary dirge than a march to war. Even “Venus” was fitfully ponderous, the sparkling details lacking requisite sweep.

Nelsons belatedly found sureer footing by the middle of the suite. “Jupiter” bounded with welcome pomp and exuberance. The nimble passages of “Mercury” were effervescent, and the impish march “Uranus” coursed fervently.

His prevailing pensive approach paid dividends in teh final two sections. The static harmonies of “Saturn” took on palpable weight while “Neptune,” which featured Boston’s Lorelei Ensemble, their offstage singing conveyed the requisite mystery and distance.

John Williams’s A Toast! opened the concert in ceremonial style.

Honored around the country this past summer for his 90th birthday, Williams composed this brief fanfare to celebrate Nelsons’s arrival as the BSO’s music director in 2014. The bold and vibrant performance by the orchestra’s brass and percussion welcomed the coming season with joy and a sense of post-Covid thanksgiving.

The program will be repeated 1:30 p.m. Friday at Symphony Hall. The Boston Symphony Orchestra Gala will feature Andris Nelsons leading music by Simon, Gershwin, Dukas, and Saint-Säens, with pianist Lang Lang, 6 p.m. Saturday.

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