Nelsons, BSO shine in Simon premiere and Bloch; lackluster Beethoven not so much

February 10, 2023 at 12:34 pm

By Jonathan Blumhofer

Andris Nelsons congratulates Carlos Simon following the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s world premiere of his Four Black American Dances Thursday night at Symphony Hall. Photo: Aram Boghosian.

On paper, Thursday night’s Boston Symphony Orchestra concert promised its share of musical puzzles and riddles. In practice, it delivered—just not always in the expected ways. At the center of the action stood music director Andris Nelsons, whose interpretive persona was the night’s ultimate enigma.

There was, on the one hand, a blunt, shallow take on Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 that showcased the conductor’s exasperatingly uneven way with the standard canon. At the same time, Nelsons is one of the orchestra world’s most reliable advocates for new and off-track music, as he demonstrated in a pair of such works: the world premiere of Carlos Simon’s Four Black American Dances and the return—after an absence of more than forty years—of Ernest Bloch’s Schelomo to the BSO’s repertoire.

Simon’s fifteen-minute-long effort, commissioned by the BSO, celebrates some of the considerable influence of black dance forms on larger American culture. Each of its movements evokes a particular type: ring shout, waltz, tap, and what Simon calls a “Holy Dance” (referencing the charismatic tradition in which he grew up). The score’s overriding impression is agreeable, even as Thursday’s debut outing involved some first-night jitters and textural imbalances.

Throughout the Dances, Simon’s writing is harmonically and melodically accessible. Rhythms in the fast movements are often motoric. Occasionally, the score alludes to the blues and gospel, but those references are touchstones and never sound derivative. Periodically, too, the instrumentation makes non-traditional demands on the ensemble: asynchronous string textures in the “Holy Dance,” for instance, and hand clapping in the orchestra in the “Ring Shout.”

Most impressively, the Dances overcome a series of discreet challenges. They’re short but not insubstantial. They brim with surface color but don’t want for musical depth. Above all, they’re deeply personal, expressive, and memorable.

On Thursday, most striking were the “Waltz,” with its flowing, graceful turns and hauntingly quizzical ending, and the “Holy Dance,” whose striding chord progressions, driving riffs, and episodes of warm brass vibrato (and glissandos) culminated in explosions of freewheeling energy. Simon at 36 has already established a compelling voice and was on hand to accept a brief but fervent ovation.

In more than a few regards (particularly its deft handling of the orchestra and reflection of its composer’s cultural and spiritual roots) Schelomo made for a smart pairing with the Four Black American Dances. Bloch completed the score in 1916, grouping it in his “Jewish cycle,” a series of pieces intent on expressing, as he put it, “the soul of the Jewish people.”

Sheku Kanneh-Mason performed Ernest Bloch’s Schelomo with Andris Nelsons and the BSO Thursday night. Photo: Aram Boghosian

Thursday’s performance with Sheku Kanneh-Mason in his BSO debut was aptly impassioned. The cellist imbued his part with appealing intensity, though sometimes sounded underpowered in his upper tessitura. Nevertheless, Kanneh-Mason’s low-register playing was a marvel of concentration and power: rich, noble, burnished, and resonant.

Nelsons and the BSO delivered a kinetic account of Schelomo’s orchestral part. For color, balances, direction, and nuance, Thursday’s was a reading of compelling focus, especially in its several sections that anticipate John Williams’ score to Raiders of the Lost Ark. What’s more, all of the music’s climaxes – and these are generally bold, full-throated moments – were tactfully balanced and never strident.

Afterwards, Kanneh-Mason offered an arrangement of the Welsh song “Myfanwy” as a tastefully subdued encore.

If the Bloch ranked among the finer things Nelsons and the BSO have done in their nine seasons together, the Beethoven Seventh that closed the night was less exalted.

It was, fundamentally, a missed opportunity to mine anything insightful or fresh from this remarkable score. The Scherzo aside, Thursday’s Seventh boasted all the subtlety, wonder, and natural thrills of a klieg light.

The opening movement was incessantly bright, loud, and shapeless. Ditto for the Allegretto, though its rhythms (especially in the fugue) were taut. Only in the Scherzo did Nelsons and his band manage to consistently achieve pianissimos that were, indeed, a couple of notches below mezzopiano and demonstrate that observing brisk tempo indications and written dynamic levels aren’t mutually exclusive.

Otherwise, the weaknesses that boiled over in the finale—unrelenting gradations of forte, breathlessness, raw tone, blurry textures, and ragged ensemble—too often prevailed in this vexing outing of Beethoven’s finest symphony.

The program will be repeated 1:30 p.m. Friday, 8 p.m. Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday at Symphony Hall.

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