May 062013

The return to the standard repertoire, which, since January, has been the orchestra’s primary focus, is safe, unassuming, and (potentially, at least) creatively stifling.

By Jonathan Blumhofer.

Violinist Nikolaj Znaider — He casts an imposing presence and his fiddle playing projects accordingly. Photo: Hilary Scott

It’s a shame Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO) conductor emeritus Bernard Haitink just turned 84: if he were a decade younger, he’d likely be a shoo-in for the BSO’s vacant music directorship. Then again, who knows? Based on the results of the season-closing program he just led with the BSO, maybe the administration will just promote him.

For the second consecutive season, Haitink presided over the BSO’s end-of-year festivities, this time leading familiar music by Brahms and Schubert. Even though this was decidedly old-fashioned programming, there was nothing fusty about the BSO’s playing. In its history, there have been a handful of conductors to whom the orchestra has really responded: Koussevitzky, Munch, Colin Davis, and James Levine among them. Haitink’s another. Throughout the evening, he drew warm, richly burnished playing of intense focus from the BSO that gave the sense that the music was emanating from a very special place.

That focus was especially apparent in the reading of Schubert’s Ninth Symphony that closed the concert. The best live performance that I’ve heard of this piece came courtesy of Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic on a tour stop in Chicago nearly a decade ago: it was aggressive, energetic, and brimming with life—the music of a confident, young composer with a promising career ahead of him.

Haitink took a different view. His reading was more contained and a bit mellower, the exuberance of youth tempered by the wisdom of age. The outer movements were studies in control and pacing, driven but disciplined. Rhythmically, the first movement came off best, the orchestra tautly locking into Schubert’s galumphing tattoos and delivering a finely balanced articulation of the symphony’s active orchestral textures.

Haitink took Schubert’s tempo marking for the second movement (Andante con moto = walking pace, with motion) at face value and that gave the movement’s jerks and sforzandi an added jolt of energy. The contrasting second section was all warmth and contentment.

While the last two movements might have benefited from more vigorous tempos—there were moments here when Schubert’s “heavenly length” started to feel “long”—the BSO’s sumptuous sound was a thing, itself, to behold. In the cheery finale, with its motoric triplet patterns, there was a contained excitement that paid off in a spectacular coda. Sometimes slow and steady (or, in this case, maybe just steady) does win the race.

Before intermission, Nikolaj Znaider joined Haitink and the BSO in Brahms’s Violin Concerto.

Standing over six feet tall, Znaider casts an imposing presence, and his fiddle playing projects accordingly. Tonally, he might not be the ideal interpreter of the Brahms Concerto—his playing is often cool and steely, and Brahms benefits from some warmth—but his technique is impeccable and his intonation spot-on. And, on Saturday, Znaider sweetened the pot with some lovely portamenti and a range of dynamic contrasts that well focused the ear.

Back in the day, one wit described the Brahms concerto as pitting “violin against orchestra,” and there was an element of that antagonism in Saturday’s performance. However, this was a collegial rivalry, with the soloist more than holding his own against the larger forces.

And if any soloist is going to do battle with an orchestra and come out on top, it’s probably going to be Znaider, who can project his sound better than just about any other violinist on the scene today. He tore into the first movement’s double stops and arpeggios with abandon but turned, a few bars later, and delivered a sweet, gentle account of the movement’s opening theme. The rest of his performance revolved around and between those two extremes: focused, polished, straightforward.

In fact, this was a rather old-fashioned performance in its straightforwardness, but it called to mind the best of the old, particularly Heifetz, in its sheer musicality. And the Heifetz connection was only emphasized by Znaider’s use of the Auer-Heifetz cadenzas, which turn the violin into a one-instrument orchestra.

Haitink and the BSO provided strong backing, embracing Brahms’s symphonic accompaniment and, as they would in the Schubert, clearly delineating the orchestral textures. John Ferrillo’s dulcet account of the second movement oboe solo was a highlight.

Nikolaj Znaider performing the Brahms Violin Concerto with Bernard Haitink and the BSO. Photo: Stu Rosner

After Saturday’s concert, the BSO saluted this year’s retirees, principal librarian Marshall Burlingame and violinist Ronald Knudson. Between them, they’ve served the orchestra for 78 years, and the Knudson connection, in particular, continues into foreseeable future: Ronald’s son, Sato, is a BSO cellist (and, in perhaps the most touching moment of the night, father and son shared an embrace, center stage).

As well played as Saturday’s performance was, it—and the season that it closed—leave unanswered some big questions about where the BSO is heading in future. The return to the standard repertoire, which, since January, has been the orchestra’s primary focus, is safe, unassuming, and (potentially, at least) creatively stifling. Bernard Haitink usually brings out the best in the BSO, as he did this week and last, but programming steady doses of Brahms, Schubert, and Beethoven gets old fast and does nothing to make the BSO more relevant as an ensemble or shatter the perception that Symphony Hall is a temple of elites. Next season, its four premieres notwithstanding, is a step backwards, programming-wise, and the upcoming Tanglewood season, which features at least the fourth BSO Beethoven marathon since James Levine’s Beethoven-Schoenberg retrospective of 2004-06, is even more dispiriting. Surely such programming is something that will be addressed by the new BSO music director, whenever he (or she) is appointed, but it’s also an area in which the orchestra’s administration can and should be more creative as it shepherds the ensemble through this interim period.

Yes, there is much to be gained, emotionally and spiritually, from excellent playing and familiar music, as this weekend’s concerts proved. But the old models of programming can’t sustain season upon season, especially not in light of the stimulating results of creative leadership at orchestras in Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, and, yes, even Boston (just look at the Discovery Ensemble and A Far Cry). The longer the BSO takes to realize this and act, the more it risks slipping into irrelevance. It’s a situation that doesn’t need—and shouldn’t be allowed—to happen.


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