Concert Review: BSO’s Andris Nelsons conducts Shostakovich, Tchaikovsky, and Rachmaninoff

The BSO has had a well-deserved couple of weeks off following their late-summer tour of Europe and, on Thursday, they took some time to regain their sea-legs.

Evgeny Kissin and Andris Nelsons open the Boston Symphony season with Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No 1. Photo: Winslow Townson.

Evgeny Kissin and Andris Nelsons open the Boston Symphony season with Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No 1. Photo: Winslow Townson.

By Jonathan Blumhofer

Who says you can’t have a substantial opening night program? Certainly not Andris Nelsons, who kicked off the first subscription series of his second season as Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO) music director on Thursday night with a two-and-a-half hour marathon that, in duration at least, called to mind some of the longer evenings of James Levine’s first years in town a decade ago.

It wasn’t exactly a Levine-esque program – those tended to boast a bit more connective programmatic tissue – but it did include a rarity in Shostakovich’s Symphony no. 9. Not heard on a BSO program since 1962, the Ninth was written to commemorate the end of World War 2, though its ironic wit, lightheartedness, and relatively brief length (its five movements run only about thirty minutes) ran counter to official Soviet expectations of a major choral symphony commemorating the end of hostilities. Such was not infrequently Shostakovich’s way with the dictates of the regime and, as in his most subversive scores, the Ninth’s ultimate meaning remains cryptic. Is it simply ironic? Detached? Honest, good-natured fun? Intentionally provocative? All of the above? Something else?

Nelsons’ interpretation of the piece, which is being recorded for release on the BSO’s “Under Stalin’s Shadow” series by Deutsche Grammophon, embraces the music’s ambiguity. The slow movements are its focus, the first lush and haunting, the second scarred by painful experience. The fast outer ones were, on Thursday at least, dry and straightforward, though the ominous layering of textures Nelsons and the BSO drew from the apex of the finale was downright disturbing. Clearly, in this reading, the brisk movements’ surface jauntiness is a mask.

The BSO has had a well-deserved couple of weeks off following their late-summer tour of Europe and, on Thursday, they took some time to regain their sea-legs: the whole Symphony came over a bit raw. There were ragged entrances in the opening movement, shrill climaxes in the third (especially from winds and brass), and intonation problems dogged various solos throughout the piece. Nelsons’ tempo in the finale, too, was leaden. Perhaps that was the point (to emphasize the hollowness of the postwar celebration of the cult of Stalin?) but I missed the impish, Haydnesque wit that also lives in those pages. Drama thrives on contrasts and there was room for starker expressive dissimilitude between the Ninth’s fourth and fifth movements, especially.

Having said that, the solos in the second and fourth movements – from principal flute Elizabeth Rowe, principal clarinet William Hudgins, and principal bassoon Richard Svoboda – sang with breathtaking warmth and depth of color. And Nelsons’ command of orchestral balance throughout the Symphony was consistently strong and revealing. It will be interesting to hear how performances of this piece settle over the remain concerts of this run and (of course) how the finished recorded product turns out.

One can make the case that the BSO missed a programming opportunity by inserting Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto no. 1 between a pair of WW2-era symphonic scores (Rachmaninoff’s 1940 Symphonic Dances closed the evening): a late-Prokofiev concerto, a Bartók, or – perhaps best – Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand might have suited the occasion better. The Tchaikovsky was obviously meant to draw an opening-weekend audience and it did that. But it’s not a bold artistic statement, at least not in this context: the piece has its share of tunes and fireworks, but holds few mysteries and no new revelations were revealed on Thursday.

Still, when you’ve got a virtuoso of Evgeny Kissin’s abilities and musical intellect, it can be a treat to simply sit back and hear him have his way with the Concerto’s many technical tricks. And he does much with them. Its fistfuls of notes, rapid passagework, not to mention the many moments of lyricism, offer ample opportunity to demonstrate soloistic prowess, and Kissin’s is as precise and remarkable now as it was thirty years ago. He was at his finest in a lovely account of the Concerto’s second movement, whose euphonic outer sections sang with sweetness and heart; the quicksilver central interlude was charged with electric bite.

Nelsons and the BSO rendered an impressively transparent accompaniment – it was wonderful to hear orchestra playing alongside and echoing the soloist with such clarity in the finale – and delivered the first movement’s opening theme with fervor. Clint Foreman turned in numinous accounts of his several second-movement flute solos. If Thursday’s wasn’t the most momentous reading of this well worn favorite, it was at least competently done and demonstrated that, almost 140 years to the day after its premiere down the street at the Boston Music Hall (now the Orpheum Theater), it’s still a crowd-pleaser. Kissin rewarded the big ovation that followed his performance with an encore of Tchaikovsky’s Meditation.

After intermission, Nelsons directed a superb, potent reading of the Symphonic Dances. This is a piece that, if it gets anything less than a first-rate performance, can overstay its welcome. On Thursday it did no such thing. The orchestra’s playing was rhythmically alive and rich with color, textures were (as was the rule of the night) pellucid, and the melodic line – led by Thomas Martin’s ravishing alto saxophone solos – drove the whole performance. The off-balance second movement waltz, with its echoes of Mahler and Ravel, sounded suave as I’ve ever heard it and Nelsons and the BSO conveyed a palpable sense of manic energy mining Rachmaninoff’s obsessive variations on the Dies irae chant in the finale.

The only blemish on the performance came not from the stage but opposite it. Thursday night’s audience, during the Rachmaninoff at least, was one of the noisiest I’ve encountered at Symphony Hall, coughing loudly, and there were even, at times, a handful of individuals oblivious to the music, talking audibly through the first movement. The quick mass exodus following the Dances’ closing bars can perhaps be excused on account of the evening’s long run-time, but, on the whole, the second half of Thursday night’s concert was not the BSO’s audience’s finest hour.

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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