No doubt many in Saturday’s well-dressed crowd came for the opportunity to hear that most appropriate of gala pianists, Lang Lang.
By Jonathan Blumhofer
For the second year in a row, Andris Nelsons led the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO) in an all-Russian opening concert. This year’s was a gala, though, not a subscription series (and, by all accounts a successful one, raising the orchestra about $1.5 million), and, with galas, it’s sometimes safe to assume that the musical portion of the evening will be light-weight and unchallenging (so as, the more cynical among us might presume, not to spoil anyone’s appetite for giving and fine dining afterwards). Indeed, Saturday’s program was on the easier side – Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto no. 3 was the night’s most Modernist-leaning piece – but there was nothing insubstantial about the BSO’s playing. Quite the contrary: it picked up right where it left off last spring, the connection between Nelsons and the orchestra seemingly deep and healthy as ever.
No doubt many in Saturday’s well-dressed crowd came for the opportunity to hear that most appropriate of gala pianists, Lang Lang, play the Prokofiev. And why shouldn’t they have? It’s a wildly virtuosic showpiece and Lang, that showiest of showmen, is nothing if not a wizard of the keyboard – even as he’s not quite the musical sage some of his exaggerated mannerisms imply him to be.
Much of his performance Saturday was, visually, excellent: Lang’s hands flew (sometimes very high, often quite fast) and he played with lots of bravado and energy. Some of it was deeply musical. Parts of it were pretentious. The last included his conducting along with Nelsons during his moments of rests in the outer movements and bits of posing (or was it mugging?) after tossing off a dramatic gesture or two. Close your eyes, and you miss it – you miss part of the Lang Lang experience, too – but at least on Saturday the distortions of phrase and line that sometimes accompany these affectations were largely absent.
That said, Saturday’s wasn’t a particularly revealing interpretation of the Concerto. There were moments, especially the quiet ones in the second and third movements, where a concentrated focus yielded deep expressive insights. But the (many more) fast passages allowed one to marvel at Lang’s technical dexterity and little else; unfortunately, those moments make up most of the piece.
Of course, maybe that’s part of the point: no one’s ever mistaken Prokofiev’s Third with, for instance, Beethoven’s “Emperor.” But the end of Lang’s impressive technique can be (and, on Saturday, was) a bit frustrating. Its goal seems to be to shock and awe you into worship of the pianist when there are expressive and musical ends that might be better served by such abilities. All I can say is that I’ve heard this piece played more meaningfully and thoughtfully (and about equally brilliantly) by Yevgeny Kissin and Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, so I came away a bit less impressed by Saturday’s performance than did maybe many of my neighbors.
Lang still gave an encore – kind of strangely, as applause seemed to be dying down – of Manuel Ponce’s Intermezzo no. 1. Like the best moments of the Prokofiev, though, it was pensive, direct, and beautiful.
The BSO provided an accompaniment that, from the start, was colorful and mesmeric – the duet clarinetists William Hudgins and Michael Wayne wove of the first movement’s opening theme was nothing short of glorious – and also rhythmically tight. Would that there had been a few more moments like we got towards the end of the second, when soloist and orchestra seemed to be tugging in opposite directions from each other – that might have helped build some real musical tension – but vigor and energy were ever-present.
If the Prokofiev was marked by a bit more flash than depth, the night’s other two performances made up for it. Perhaps it was because Shostakovich’s Festive Overture was being recorded for the BSO’s ongoing Shostakovich series with Deutsche Grammophon that the orchestra gave it such a vibrant, lucid, exuberant reading. It certainly proved a thrilling start to the night, its climax marked by the addition of an extended brass section in the second balcony.
But no documentary excuse can be made for the superb, nuanced account of Ravel’s orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition that followed intermission. This was simply a great performance of a piece the BSO all but owns (quite literally: Serge Koussevitzky commissioned it two years before he became the orchestra’s music director in 1924).
And I’ve hardly heard it performed with such warmth and drama as the BSO music director drew out of those familiar pages on Saturday. Nelsons and the orchestra lived each movement in a deeply-felt way, so much so that the recurring “Promenades” stood in stark relief, both from the “pictures” surrounding them and the previous iterations of the “Promenade” refrain (Ravel’s slight variations of scoring notwithstanding).
From Thomas Rolfs’ melting account of the first “Promenade” to tubist Mike Roylance’s disembodied, wistful “Bydlo” to the ensemble’s ember-like take on “Catacombs,” the BSO brass had a great night. So did the winds, highlighted by Tom Martin’s saxophone solo in “Il vecchio castello” and some grippingly eerie ensemble-playing in “Con mortuis in lingua mortua.” And the strings, whether articulating the subtle glissandos in “Gnomus” or corralling the vertiginous energy of “Limoges,” played with unanimity and panache.
But it was the cumulative execution of the piece that stood tallest. From a ferocious “Gnomus” to a scamping “Ballet of Chicks in their Shells” to a terrifying “Baba Yaga” and stirring “Great Gate at Kiev,” Saturday’s reading was terrific. It was an example of Nelsons truly engaging with the BSO’s storied legacy and, in the process, curating the first of this season’s orchestral “events.”
If you missed it, don’t despair: both the Shostakovich and Mussorgsky are set to be repeated this coming Friday night, in a single (short) concert that falls between the season’s next big happening, two concert performances of Richard Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier. Catch them all, if you can.
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.