Front and center was the orchestra’s music director, Andris Nelsons, who, interpretively, seemed more than happy to try on a bunch of different hats.
By Jonathan Blumhofer
Inclement weather may have wreaked havoc with the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s (BSO) schedule this week – Thursday’s subscription concert was called off due to the snow – but it couldn’t fully stand in the way of the artistic daring demonstrated in Saturday night’s performance of music by Ravel, George Benjamin, and Berlioz at Symphony Hall. Front and center was the orchestra’s music director, Andris Nelsons, who, interpretively, seemed more than happy to try on a bunch of different hats.
On the one hand, Nelsons was a typically brilliant and effusive advocate for new music. Benjamin’s Dream of the Song, for countertenor, female chorus, and orchestra was co-commissioned by the BSO and first heard on these shores last summer at Tanglewood (featuring on that occasion the Music Center Orchestra). Its six movements set poems by Ibn Gabirol, Samuel HaNagid, and Federico Garcia Lorca that focus on mortality and the passage of time. Benjamin’s writing in it is, by turns, wistful, mysterious, resigned, and violent.
On Saturday, countertenor Bejun Mehta inhabited all of these characteristics in a performance that was as compelling as it was touching. He spit out the passionate, florid writing of the opening song, “The Pen,” with remarkable ease and staggeringly clear diction. In the third movement, “Gazing Through the Night,” he intoned its sweeping lyricism with robust tone and sonorous beauty. Mehta sang the fifth, “The Gazelle,” with chilling clarity, and the finale, “My Heart Thinks as the Sun Comes Up,” brought out a measure of wise serenity.
Lorelei, which performed in Dream’s Tanglewood performance, glowed in their three Lorca settings. For two of them – “Casida del llanto” and “Casida del herido por el agua” – Benjamin sets the female chorus in counterpoint with the countertenor. The texture is intentionally a bit cloudy but the effect of the Spanish syllables jumping out from behind the countertenor’s English text is deliciously ear-catching. So it was on Saturday.
Benjamin, a former student of Messiaen’s as well as a colleague of Boulez’s, writes superbly and evocatively for instruments. So it came as no real surprise that Nelsons drew a reading of such color from the BSO. Most impressive, though, was the sheer excellence of the orchestra’s playing, as though the musicians had lived with this music for quite some time. Its many wonderful moments – among them, driving vibraphone duets in the first movement; sumptuous oboe-duo cantilenas in the second; delicate writing for vibraphones and harps in the third; and the blending between Lorelei and orchestral strings in the bridge between the last two – really spoke.
Saturday’s was, in sum, a reading that was masterfully conceived and executed with the surety of an old pro perfectly at home in the complexities of challenging new music.
Then there was Nelsons’ Symphonie fantastique.
For all the mature confidence that marked Dream of the Song, it was impossible to miss the fact that, as far as expression went, Nelsons’ was a young man’s take on this piece. Tempos were brisk. There was no (or at least very little) lingering over delicate moments, be they the early iterations of the Idée fixe or the bucolic scenes of the third movement. No, everything here was impetuous, fully lived in the moment. Dynamic hairpins swelled. Accents popped. And many of the music’s weird little details came out of the woodwork.
Nelsons’ was, above all, an interpretation that emphasized the Symphonie’s raging emotionalism. Accordingly, it wasn’t always pristine in execution. Big climaxes sometimes came over a bit roughly. During the first movement, for instance, the trumpet melody was covered in the dizzying whorl of high strings and thundering timpani. In the finale, the layering of textures (like the ones after the E-flat clarinet solo) were occasionally blurry.
Still, here was a “Witches’ Sabbath” that cackled with menace and flair. There was no cheating on the wind and horn glissandos near its beginning. The nadir of the strings’ fugue (played super-legato) slithered like the snake pit in Raiders of the Lost Ark. And Nelsons toyed with the dynamics a bit over the score’s closing couple of pages, turning them into a sort of hellish Harmoniemusik that was, in the event, as surprising as it was successful.
In the “March to the Scaffold,” Nelsons played up the raucous element, especially emphasizing the low brass.
The first three movements weren’t as coloristically daring, though, admittedly, they’re a bit less Technicolor than the latter pair.
Even so, the waltz drove with impellent energy.
The third movement was played with breathtakingly swiftness. There were times in it when it would have been nice for the music to relax and breathe a bit, but at least this “Scene in the Country” never dawdled. Its closing timpani rolls – heard from drums placed outside the hall in the second balcony – were particularly striking.
If the veneer of Classical restraint hung over the Symphonie’s first movement a little bit – would that its most passionate extremes had been a bit more explosive – its slow outer sections were tonally rich, especially the closing passage for winds and strings.
The best moments of Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin, which opened Saturday’s concert, were likewise vivid. In the Ravel, Nelsons seemed to be trying to put his stamp on piece the BSO’s owned for nearly a century. Based on one hearing, his reading still has some room to grow.
Best was the third-movement Minuet, with its warmly songful refrains and floating, inventive textures (like the low-string harmonics that fill out its mid-section). On Saturday, they sounded warm and nostalgic as ever, a welcome antidote to the vigorous, somewhat unsettled bustle of the “Prelude” and bits of rhythmic hesitancy at spots in the “Forlane” and “Rigaudon.”
Jonathan Blumhofer is a composer and violist who has been active in the greater Boston area since 2004. His music has received numerous awards and been performed by various ensembles, including the American Composers Orchestra, Kiev Philharmonic, Camerata Chicago, Xanthos Ensemble, and Juventas New Music Group. Since receiving his doctorate from Boston University in 2010, Jon has taught at Clark University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and online for the University of Phoenix, in addition to writing music criticism for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.