Saturday’s reading of Witold Lutoslawski’s Piano Concerto greatly benefited from pianist Garrick Ohlsson’s steely yet sensitive account of the solo part.
By Jonathan Blumhofer
The post of assistant conductor is usually one of the less public of orchestral appointments. In recent years, though, several holders of that position at the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO) have been called upon to make high-profile debuts, and there have been a couple of auspicious discoveries among them, including Ludovic Morlot (now in his third season as music director of the Seattle Symphony) and Marcelo Lehninger (currently the BSO’s associate conductor). The orchestra’s current assistant conductor, Andris Poga, had a few scheduled days in the limelight with this weekend’s subscription series concerts, ones that demonstrated some welcome, offbeat programming ideas: music by three familiar names – Wagner, Witold Lutoslawski, and Shostakovich – but only one piece (the Overture to Rienzi) that probably qualifies as well known.
Boston audiences got a full dose of Wagner’s Rienzi in September, courtesy of Odyssey Opera. One of the highlights of that concert was an electrifying rendition of the overture, itself a medley of the show’s big tunes. Alas, Poga’s account of that same overture on Saturday night didn’t quite stir. Aside from capturing the warm lyricism of the slow, opening section, and some rich, stentorian brass playing, Poga’s Rienzi tended to plod through its first half and was far too rigid in its brisker second part to ever really breathe and come to life.
Much more successful was Lutoslawski’s 1988 Piano Concerto. Like several leading U.S. orchestras, the BSO neglected Lutoslawski’s centenary last year and would have missed his 101st birthday this year (the actual day was Saturday) had Justin Dello Joio been able to finish his new Piano Concerto. Happily, the scheduled soloist, Garrick Ohlsson, has several of the great 20th-century concerti in his repertoire. So the Lutoslawski, not heard on a BSO program since 1990, when Lutoslawski himself conducted it, made a welcome return to Boston.
The concerto is classic late Lutoslawski. That is to say that the writing combines many hallmarks of the postwar avant-garde with an expressive language that hearkens back to the pillars of the Romantic symphonic tradition, particularly the music of Chopin and Tchaikovsky. Cast in four connected movements, Lutoslawski’s Piano Concerto makes no compromises for any of its performers, but the work’s adherence to vestiges of the tonal tradition (particularly formal ones) aid its expressive straightforwardness: it’s at least not a terribly difficult piece for the listener to follow.
Saturday’s reading greatly benefited from pianist Ohlsson’s steely yet sensitive account of the solo part. He dispatched the music’s technical hurdles with seeming ease while emphasizing the score’s lyrical impulses, of which there are many. Indeed, I’ll remember this performance as much for Ohlsson’s delivery of Lutoslawski’s soaring melodic writing as for his deft navigation of the concerto’s wild virtuosity.
Poga coordinated the score’s many moving parts with a sure hand. Yes, there were moments when Lutoslawski’s kaleidoscopic orchestration might have sparkled with more wit and immediacy, and there were some sections (especially in the finale) in which greater attention to uniform articulations could have given the music a little bit more of an edge. But, on the whole, Saturday’s was a perfectly satisfying performance: driving, resigned, mysterious. It’s a piece one hopes to encounter at Symphony Hall several times again before another quarter century passes.
Ditto for Shostakovich’s Symphony no. 15, though, to be fair, it’s only been seventeen years since the piece last appeared on a BSO program. Shostakovich’s final and most enigmatic symphony, this is a score perhaps best known for its various quotations – snatches of Rossini, Wagner, and Shostakovich turn up – and macabre, haunting ending (whirring percussion that simply, suddenly stop).
It can be a very difficult piece to pull off, not only because of the quizzical character of its content, but also because Shostakovich, never really a concise composer to begin with, didn’t hold anything back, musically, especially in his later years. Accordingly, there’s something of an excess of material in some of his last scores. (In the Fifteenth Symphony, this tendency is most apparent of the second of its four movements, a funeral march framed by a series of instrumental recitatives and a lengthy coda.)
On Saturday, the symphony’s more concise outer movements fared best. Poga drew out the whimsical, cheeky spirit of the opening mostly by playing it straight and letting the music speak for itself. The finale, which begins with the “Fate motif” from the Ring and ends with the march from Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony, came across with similar directness and drama.
The middle movements, though, lacked some sense of character, especially the Scherzo, which was surprisingly sluggish and generally wanting in that most Shostakovichian of qualities, irony. And the mysterious second movement often felt more like a series of episodic vignettes rather than an organic narrative.
Still, there was some wonderful playing throughout: trombonist Toby Oft delivered a knock-out account of the funeral march and principal cello Jules Eskin managed a gritty, stratospheric portrait of grief. Concertmistress Elita Kang brought much character to her several solos and the percussion section seemed to revel in their parts. Perhaps most remarkable, Poga managed the almost-impossible feat of carrying a January Symphony Hall audience through this substantial piece with steady focus and in almost total silence – in these parts and in this time of year that’s no mean feat.
Last November, Poga was named music director of the Latvian National Symphony Orchestra. To judge from this weekend’s concerts, he is a conductor with a bright future ahead of him: he has solid technique; clear, musical ideas; and some pretty ambitious programming instincts. Yes, there’s room for him to grow, interpretively, but he’s young and there’s no reason to think he won’t. Let’s hope future seasons regularly bring him back to Boston, especially with more programs like this one.
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.