Despite some interpretive shortcomings, Sean Newhouse, the orchestra’s 30-year-old assistant conductor, has solid technique and a major orchestra whose players, management, and audience believe in him.
By Jonathan Blumhofer
The music of the 20th century was alive and well at Symphony Hall this week as the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO) opened its first subscription season since James Levine’s resignation as music director. Sean Newhouse, the orchestra’s 30-year-old assistant conductor, was on the podium, making his subscription debut in a program of populist works by Benjamin Britten, Sergei Prokofiev, and Jean Sibelius.
Newhouse already conducted the BSO on two notable occasions this year: first, filling in for Levine on short notice in a performance of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony in February then making his Tanglewood debut with the orchestra this past summer. In both his previous appearances, rehearsal time was either nil or severely limited; the stakes were summarily raised for his first subscription series this week. The result, on Friday at least, was a pleasant and commendable affair, though I left feeling that the sum of its parts did not add up to a fully satisfying whole.
Each piece on the program had a long history with the BSO. The first, the “Four Sea Interludes” from Britten’s opera Peter Grimes, was (along with the opera) commissioned by the Koussevitzky Foundation in the early 1940s. Legendary music director Serge Koussevitzky conducted the first BSO performances of the “Interludes” at Symphony Hall in March 1946, while the opera was given its American debut at Tanglewood in August of that year under the direction of another legend-to-be, a 27-year-old conductor named Leonard Bernstein.
Friday’s performance of the “Interludes” was solid, and, at times, thrilling. Britten’s handling of the orchestra is striking and innovative: each section of the ensemble has its moments to shine, and in this performance, by and large, did so. Of particular note were the melancholy brass chorales in the first movement, “Dawn,” that swelled like the tide. The strings shone in the second movement, “Sunday Morning,” alternating their opening martial material with the elegiac pathos of the movement’s middle theme to great effect.
The last two movements, “Night” and “Storm,” though less successful in this concert, still had their moments of glory. I would like to have heard greater dynamic contrasts throughout the piece, particularly in the middle of the third movement, though the flute/harp/xylophone trio that recurs through the climax of “Night” came across chillingly. The “Storm” movement was fast and loud, though subject to some curiously sloppy transitions. This final movement needs to have a particularly menacing air, and such a spirit was distinctly lacking in this performance; it was dark, to be sure, but only the surface of this richly psychological music was touched.
For me, the highlight of the program was its second work, Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto no. 3, with the superb French pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet gamely taking on this knuckle-buster of a score. Prokofiev wrote the piece between 1914 and 1921, intending it as a vehicle to showcase his formidable abilities as a pianist (indeed, he was the soloist at the work’s premiere in Chicago in 1921 and was at the keyboard for its first Boston performances in 1926). Bavouzet, who made his subscription debut with the BSO in 2002, was more than equal to the challenges Prokofiev threw his way.
The first movement, after its slow introduction, was played at a mercurial tempo, resulting in the most thrilling music making of the afternoon. Indeed, the mad dash through its closing pages brought a short burst of well-deserved applause from the audience. The second movement, a theme with five variations, should stand as the emotional heart of the concerto, and so it was in Bavouzet’s sensitive reading. The finale features more fast music filled with mixed meters and not a few rhythmic twists, which soloist and orchestra navigated handsomely.
Throughout the performance, Bavouzet’s body language at the keyboard was by turns fascinating and entertaining. He dispatched the virtuosic solo part with aplomb, not appearing to break a sweat. His seemingly relaxed demeanor, contrasted by the wildly exuberant music emanating from the piano, made for a particularly endearing performance. Despite some small balance issues, Newhouse and the Orchestra were sensitive accompanists.
To close the concert, Newhouse returned after intermission with the Sibelius Symphony no. 2, and it was in this performance that some of the interpretive challenges apparent in his earlier reading of the Britten “Interludes” reappeared on a larger canvas.
The BSO, in particular, has a long history with the music of Sibelius: Koussevitzky was an ardent champion who, for much of the 1930s, attempted to finagle an 8th Symphony out of the famously reclusive composer. More recently, the great Colin Davis made a celebrated recording of the complete symphonies with the Orchestra, and a host of other Sibelius conductors have led his music at Symphony Hall.
With such a pedigree, one would expect—even with a young assistant conductor at the helm—more of a well-rounded performance than was heard on Friday. As in the Britten, there were some deeply memorable individual moments: the pastoral first movement was relaxed and flowed beautifully. The opening of the second movement, featuring pizzicato basses and cellos later joined by two bassoons, was phrased with extraordinary sensitivity. The last two movements, which follow one another without pause, featured some exciting, if ragged, playing, and the Coda of the finale—one of the great perorations in Western music—was exhilarating.
Then there was the rest of the Symphony. Throughout the big second and fourth movements, there was very little sense of the work’s architecture, of the overall goal of its many individual parts. Certainly expressing the overarching flow of an expansive score like this one is a skill that Newhouse will probably develop over time, though I do feel it could have been helped on this occasion simply by allowing the music to relax and breathe, particularly in the slow second movement and at several junctures in the finale. Balance issues also cropped up, with the brass occasionally overpowering the rest of the ensemble.
Finally, I would also like to have heard more textural variety in this performance. The sound of Sibelius’s orchestration, which is often dark and low, is one of the extraordinary qualities of his music. In this Symphony, which alternates Nordic gloom with episodes of radiant light, these contrasting elements need to be exaggerated; all too often in Friday’s reading that was not happening.
In an engaging interview in the program booklet, BSO bass trombonist Douglas Yeo distinguishes between two types of conductors: the ones that make orchestras play well, and the ones for whom orchestras want to play well. Let’s hope that Newhouse develops into one of the latter: despite some interpretive shortcomings, he has solid technique and a major orchestra whose players, management, and audience believe in him. The BSO generally sounds in fine form under his baton, and with the concerts this weekend he has inaugurated a most interesting subscription season at Symphony Hall.
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.