Concert Review: Bermel, Prokofiev, and Strauss at Symphony Hall

The BSO’s performance of the Alpine Symphony had purpose and direction.

Andris Nelsons, the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Leonidas Kavakos perform at Symphony Hall. Photo: Robert Torres.

Andris Nelsons, the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Leonidas Kavakos perform at Symphony Hall. Photo: Robert Torres.

By Jonathan Blumhofer

Ever since its 1915 premiere, Richard Strauss’s An Alpine Symphony has gotten a bad rap, usually on some combination of complaints about its supposed banal melodic content and its extreme self-indulgence (both of storyline and instrumentation).

While there are grains of truth about both charges – it’s not Strauss’s most sophisticated tone poem (that distinction should probably go to Also sprach Zarathustra and/or Don Quixote) and a dozen off-stage horns (in addition to a brass section of eighteen) is a bit excessive – they’re, in the main, overblown. Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO) certainly made a positive case for the piece on Thursday night, the first concert of orchestra’s last subscription program of 2017.

The Alpine Symphony is the fourth of Strauss’s ten tone poems that Nelsons has led thus far with the BSO and, on the evidence of Thursday’s performance, his mastery as a director of large-scale forms (already showcased in his account of Shostakovich’s Eleventh Symphony in October) continues to grow.

This was an Alpine Symphony of purpose and direction. Everything was fluently-paced, well-balanced, and smartly shaped. Above all, Nelsons’ interpretation managed a fair equilibrium between objectivity and sentimentality: the tender moments he lingered over – the “Vision” episode and the gorgeous “Ausklang,” for instance – brought moments of welcome respite, but never at the expense of the music’s bigger picture. In general, his tempos tended towards swiftness, which gave the performance an added sense of drive.

The BSO responded accordingly. Theirs wasn’t quite a note-perfect reading: there were some cracked pitches in the brass and spots of sour intonation around the ensemble. But that’s largely par-for-the-course.

The evocative passages – “At the Waterfall,” “On Flowery Meadows,” “Dangerous Moments,” and “At the Summit,” especially – were all strongly etched. Many of the score’s small details, like the glockenspiel in “Sunrise” and the harp writing in “The Ascent,” came across warmly. James Somerville (horn) and Thomas Rolfs (trumpet) each had epic solos and textures were particularly well-blended between winds and strings.

In fact, Thursday’s was one of those performances in which Strauss’s thick and busy orchestration was clearly stabilized, with no sections unduly dominating others; that’s a remarkable feat in a piece like this and not always something we’ve gotten from Nelsons in his Strauss. The orchestra’s upcoming recording of An Alpine Symphony (all of this weekend’s concerts are being taped for a future release) should be something to explore.

Before Strauss’s mountain idyll came music by Derek Bermel and Sergei Prokofiev.

Bermel’s Elixir, a 2006 score originally written for the American Composers Orchestra, proved a bewitching curtain-raiser. Scored for an ensemble that’s split between the main stage and the sides of the hall (on Thursday, backstage rather than in the auditorium), it calls for a beguiling mix of instruments, ranging from Chinese cymbals, rainsticks, and a nipple gong to theremin and fretless bass guitar.

Elixir opens with a gently rustling percussion cadenza before the main body of the piece commences. This consists of a recurring, chorale-like figure that’s steadily repeated by strings and theremin. Gradually, other members of the orchestra interrupt this melody, becoming more insistent and cacophonous. But they don’t win out: the chorale proceeds and the music fades away with more captivating writing for percussion.

Nelsons, a superb interpreter of contemporary fare, led the BSO in a confident reading of the score. Elizabeth Brown’s theremin playing was excellent: precise, subtle, and eerie. And the orchestra’s percussionists acquitted themselves admirably, playing with color and warmth. It’s a pity that the BSO’s giving new music such short shrift this year – the whole first half of Thursday’s program might well have been given entirely to works by Bermel – but Elixir is a welcome addition to the orchestra’s canon. Let’s hope they’ll be playing (commissioning?) something more substantial from him soon.

Between Elixir and An Alpine Symphony came Leonidas Kavakos performing Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto no. 2. His was a spirited account of the piece, one that had some eyebrow-raising moments of rubato over the first movement’s lyrical stretches, but that was plenty aggressive and unsettled at other times.

Dazzling and impressive as his left-hand accuracy was, it was Kavakos’ right, his bow arm, that was the real marvel of the night, projecting the music with (seemingly) effortless clarity. Everything – from the stratospheric turns in the first movement’s development to the articulate euphony of the second and ominous rhythms of the finale – flowed coolly thanks to his commanding bow control.

Nelsons and the BSO accompanied Kavakos with brio. At times, like in the beautiful slow movement, there were remarkable, chamber-like interactions between soloist and ensemble: accompaniments and articulations so perfectly matched and passed off between Kavakos and the orchestra that it sounded as though everyone on stage had been performing this music together for years.

But there was dramatic tension on display, too, a result both of Kavakos’ occasional rhythmic flexibility and Nelsons’ strict tempos, and because of the way Prokofiev conceived the concerto as an intermittent combat between violin and orchestra.

The latter was most obvious in the finale, with its rhythmically unsettled refrain and, as it nears the denouement, its frequent patterns of asymmetrical pulses. Indeed, the score’s menacing and gritty characteristics – the thudding bass drum patterns and weird violin arpeggios – seemed to glow with particular malice on Thursday night. It was enough to make one want to draw connections between the music and current events. Or maybe not. Regardless, Kavakos and Nelsons’ overall interpretation of the Prokofiev spoke with strength and force.

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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