Trippy Mackey premiere proves a highlight on mixed night from Nelsons, Skride and BSO

January 27, 2023 at 10:59 am

By Jonathan Blumhofer

Composer Steven Mackey receives applause from Andris Nelsons and audience following the world premiere of his Concerto for Curved Space, performed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra Thursday night at Symphony Hall. Photo: Aram Boghosian

André Previn had the right perspective: at the end of his memoir, No Minor Chords, the composer-conductor-pianist noted the “healthy and sobering experience of constantly working with music that is invariably better than any performance of it can be.” 

That observation often comes to mind, but it intruded more than usual during the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s concert Thursday night at Symphony Hall.

On paper, music director Andris Nelsons’ first appearance in town since early November played to many of the conductor’s strengths. Steven Mackey’s trippy Concerto for Curved Space was receiving its world premiere. Baiba Skride was on hand to play Dmitri Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No. 2. The evening culminated in a Nelsons favorite: Johannes Brahms’s Fourth Symphony.

In practice, though, more than a few things went sideways.

Nelsons’ interpretation of the Brahms, for instance, seemed intent to out-Lenny Leonard Bernstein’s lugubrious late-period take on the same. (In one regard, at least, it succeeded: the night’s reading clocked in at forty-six minutes. Bernstein’s recording only runs forty-four.)

He would have been better served channeling Bernard Haitink’s Brahms legacy with the BSO: one of the beloved Dutch maestro’s final local appearances included a riveting—and harrowing—rendition of this very score.

There was none of that on Thursday. Instead, we got a Brahms Four that lived in and for the moment. It was spacious, loud, and blunt, seemingly content to sniff out and admire every little detail it came across, all at the expense of the bigger picture.

Yes, the reading was polished to a high sheen: the BSO could play this piece beautifully in their collective sleep. But one wants much more from Brahms’s most tragic symphony—particularly a greater sense of urgency, intensity, and ambiguity—than emerged on Thursday. In place of those, Nelsons and Friends delivered surface-level beauty, textural diffuseness, and mannered phrasings. The results were predictably frustrating and disjointed.

One missed, for instance, any degree of mystery or wonder in the radiant Andante. The Scherzo’s triplet and sixteenth-note runs were stiff, lacking abandon. Moreover, that movement was, overall, heavy-footed and dour, not playful in the least. While the BSO’s woodwind solos generally spoke well and the closing section of the finale moved with purpose, the overall performance felt indulgent and bloated.

Perhaps one explanation for this was that the bulk of the week’s rehearsal time was devoted to the night’s other two selections.

In the case of the Mackey, it was time well spent. Much of the Princeton, NJ-based composer’s output draws on his love of rock’n’roll and the electric guitar. If the BSO-co-commissioned Concerto for Curved Space didn’t immediately register as a rock-infused effort, it at least wore its heart charmingly on its sleeve.

Cast in four progressively longer movements, the music’s harmonic language is broadly diatonic, though colored by various microtonal elements. Much of the melodic writing derives from riffs, motives, and melodic cells that are passed through the ensemble. Though the score relies heavily on repetition, Mackey has the good sense to know when enough is enough—and also the skill set necessary to deftly jump cut from one unexpected textural landscape to another.

Thursday’s Mackey performance impressed as much for its stylistic security as for its rhythmic and sonic vigor. To be sure, this sort of fare is Nelsons’ bread-and-butter: in contrast to the Brahms, the reading he drew from the BSO was well-balanced and focused. Though the 30-minute-long composition would be much stronger if it were trimmed by about a third (whole stretches of the last movement, “Sphere,” meander), Mackey’s writing doesn’t offend the ear, as the long, loud ovation it received attested.

Baibe Skride performed Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No. 2 Thursday night. Photo: Aram Boghosian

The Shostakovich Violin Concerto No. 2, on the other hand, is a tougher, yet altogether richer, nut to crack. Written in 1967, the score treads similarly brooding ground as the composer’s later symphonic and chamber works, though there’s a lyricism and dancing accessibility found in the concerto that’s not as evident in, say, the last string quartets.

However, only the broadest outlines of those qualities emerged last night. Skride, playing with thin tone and generally sounding underpowered, seemed to have one idea about the piece, Nelsons and the BSO another. Neither won out.

Sometimes reading from the score, the Latvian violinist’s account of the solo line was most notable for its astonishing absence of tension: the results were grim, sure, but also aimless in ways this piece needn’t be. Additionally, Skride’s intonation—especially over the last two movements—was suspect and she never seemed to lock in, rhythmically or emotionally, with the ensemble.

For his part, Nelsons followed her capably: the woozy orchestral entrance at the end of the third-movement cadenza was decisively on-point. But the BSO tended to cover the soloist whenever the dynamic level went above mezzo-forte. What’s more, outside of the slow middle movement, the pairing rarely sounded at ease with one another; this was unsettlingly true in the tough, gritty finale, whose quickly volleying call-and-response figures were raw and insecure.

Given the high pitch of solo-orchestral collaborations these last three weeks, Thursday’s tumultuous partnership was jarring, though perhaps it will right itself over the next two nights. Until it does, Previn’s maxim remains in effect.

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Friday (minus the Mackey) and Saturday at Symphony Hall.

Posted in Performances

2 Responses to “Trippy Mackey premiere proves a highlight on mixed night from Nelsons, Skride and BSO”

  1. Posted Jan 27, 2023 at 12:46 pm by jim

    I just wanted to take this opportunity to say how much I enjoy reading your reviews. Your writing is clear and concise and I always feel as though I’ve learned a little about the music and that I’ve gotten a good sense of what the performance was like. Qualities not to be taken for granted these days.
    So, thank you.

  2. Posted Jan 28, 2023 at 12:57 pm by JAC

    I too would like to thank you for your thoughtful, erudite review. You articulated so clearly my inchoate misgivings during Thursday night’s performance as well as my appreciation of Nelsons’ heightened focus during the Mackey.

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