Fuse Concert Review: Håkan Hardenberger and Andris Nelsons at Symphony Hall

Saturday’s attendance hopefully warms the hearts of the BSO’s management. Not only was the house very full, but the assembly also included a healthy proportion of younger heads.

Conductor Andris Nelsons leads the Boston Symphony Orchestra with special guest Hokan Hardenberger performing the American premiere of Brett Dean's "'Dramatis personae." Photo: Dominick Reuter

Conductor Andris Nelsons leads the Boston Symphony Orchestra with special guest Håkan Hardenberger performing the American premiere of Brett Dean’s “‘Dramatis personae.” Photo: Dominick Reuter.

By Jonathan Blumhofer

After Beethoven, Tchaikovsky probably wrote the most interesting failures of any major composer in the symphonic repertory. His dozen or so symphonic poems contain lots of interesting music but just four big hits, one of which, the 1812 Overture, is little more than pure bombast (a verdict Tchaikovsky, himself, offered, in not quite as many words). The rest run the gamut from intriguing to rather less so.

His “fantasy-overture” based on Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the last of three Bard-inspired scores (Romeo and Juliet and The Tempest are the other two), falls somewhere between the poles. Written as he was finishing his Fifth Symphony, Hamlet is filled with quintessential Tchaikovsky-ian traits. It has its share of lyrical melodies. The music builds to some punching climaxes. There is plenty of syncopated drama. And the orchestration is deft, including an ominous tam-tam. Structurally, though, the whole thing is choppy and goes on for too long. It lacks the dramatic tension of the Symphony and rather calls to mind another Shakespeare play, the One with the immortal line about “a tale…full of sound and fury, signifying [not so much].”

Part of the problem, I think, lies in Tchaikovsky’s rather pedestrian manner of developing motives. He was, at heart, a tunesmith: among the greats, only Mozart, Verdi, and Gershwin are his equals as melodists. And the big, sumptuous tune that represents Ophelia in Hamlet is nothing short of magnificent. It’s easily the finest music in the score and one of the best melodies he ever wrote.

But nothing else in the piece equals it. Not the ponderous Hamlet motive. Neither do the martial premonitions representing Fortinbras. Beethoven or Richard Strauss could make a masterpiece (or just about) even with subpar motivic materials, but not Tchaikovsky. It just wasn’t his strength. And, because of that, Hamlet is a bit of a letdown, even when played with the energy Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO) lavished on the piece Saturday night. Assistant principal oboe Keisuke Wakao and English horn Robert Sheena earned well-deserved bows, but it says something when an orchestra and performance of this caliber can’t fully redeem a work’s shortcomings.

Tchaikovsky’s ghost and many other influences haunt the pages of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, which closed the concert, though the most enduring impression I came away from Saturday’s reading with was the sense that Nelsons is still searching for his own stamp to put on it.

Any discussion of a performance of The Rite begins and ends with rhythm. When it’s taut, everything almost always clicks. When it’s not, like Dominos, one thing after another starts to fall over. Such was the case at a couple of points during Part 1 on Saturday, notably during the latter part of “The Augurs of Spring” and “Spring Rounds.” The rhythmic drive slackened, intonation faltered, and some small ensemble cracks started to show. Once the rhythmic line got back on track, the reading proceeded with energy and focus.

Happily, much of the performance was of those last qualities. And there were inklings that, when Nelsons really comes to terms with the piece as a whole, The Rite will be an electrifying calling card for him. There was remarkable warmth of orchestral color throughout, especially in the winds in the sonorous “Introduction” to Part 1 and the “Ritual Action of the Ancestors” in Part 2. Textures, so often thick and busy, were consistently rendered clear. And the sheer sound of the percussion battery was a thing to behold in itself: I’ve never heard the four percussionists at the end of “The Wise Elder” sound more like a super-charged drum kit than on Saturday. And the thundering timpanis in “The Sacrificial Dance,” well…they all but brought down the house. So, yes: give him a couple of years and Nelsons may well deliver a Rite for the ages. Saturday’s was often good, but left room for growth.

The central part of Saturday’s concert belonged to the American premiere of Brett Dean’s trumpet concerto, Dramatis personae. It’s a piece that makes some efforts to repurpose the concerto genre for the 21st century, but, at heart, it’ a child of the 19th. In true Romantic fashion, its first movement, “Fall of a Superhero,” pits trumpet against orchestra as eternal antagonists. The haunting second movement is called “Soliloquy” and draws on harmonies and gestures not far removed from jazz. And the finale, “The Accidental Revolutionary,” adds a bit of theater to the proceedings: at the end, the soloist joins his colleagues in the orchestra to hymn a jaunty march.

Saturday’s soloist happened to be the work’s dedicatee and a longtime friend of Nelsons’, Håkan Hardenberger. His performance easily navigated the often-stratospheric solo part with vibrancy and high energy (he bounced with the beat almost as much as did the hyperkinetic Nelsons).

For his part, Nelsons led the BSO with cool command and assurance. While it’s true that it’s content starts to wear thin about two-thirds of the way through, Dramatis personae is a work that should send orchestration students scurrying to study the score, so nimble and original are some of Dean’s instrumental combinations (the opening of the first movement alone is a marvel of intricate sonorities). The BSO’s playing on Saturday did his orchestrational inventiveness justice: it was nothing if not richly colorful, sensitively balanced, and laced with humor. The surreal march at the end of the finale – think of it as Purcell meets Ives via Jacob Druckman – was a powerful demonstration of stabilizing madly shifting foreground and background textures, a great testament to the technical command Nelsons and his band possess together.

To judge from the audience’s response to the piece, Dramatis personae seemed to truly thrill about half of Saturday’s crowd while it baffled the rest. Even if the latter weren’t vocal enough, it’s good to experience music dividing the public like that, especially given that The Rite of Spring hasn’t provoked a riot in a while (quite the contrary: it got a standing ovation on Saturday).

Saturday’s attendance hopefully warms the hearts of the BSO’s management. Not only was the house very full, but the assembly also included a healthy proportion of younger heads. Of course, given that a premiere and The Rite of Spring were on the bill, that last fact may not be particularly surprising. But it does seem that Nelsons’ first weeks on the job are starting to bring new faces to Symphony Hall.

And the layout and content of this weekend’s concerts were also positive. Even if some of the pieces were dogged by various (compositional) shortcomings, this was precisely the type of program – exploring new music and the fringes of the repertoire while not neglecting a warhorse – that should be a template for, if not every week of coming BSO seasons, then at least most of them.

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.

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