Classical Music Review: Boston Symphony Orchestra — A Matter of Faulty Chemistry

While the BSO’s inventive program this week had the potential to plumb the heights and depths of human experience, Saturday’s performance generally lacked the necessary conviction, purpose, and mystery required to do so.

By Jonathan Blumhofer

Conductor Myung-Whun Chung has a penchant for swift tempos.

This past weekend at Symphony Hall, the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO) presented an interesting trope on a tried-and-true programming formula. The traditional model of overture, concerto, and symphony was given renewed energy with the creative juxtaposition of works by Carl Maria von Weber, Samuel Barber, and Piotr Illyich Tchaikovsky. Myung-Whun Chung, returning to the BSO podium for the first time since 1996, conducted; Garrick Ohlsson, the esteemed pianist, joined him for the Barber Piano Concerto.

Invigorating as this line-up appeared, the performance I attended on Saturday was unfortunately marred by Mr. Ohlsson’s lackluster take on the Barber, while Mr. Chung led a highly unsatisfying interpretation of the Tchaikovsky. Though technically the Orchestra was in fine form, there seemed to be a distinct lack of chemistry between conductor and players.

The piece that fared best on the program was its opener: Weber’s Overture to Der Freischütz, last performed by the BSO in 1983. The opera, which premiered in Berlin in 1821, is generally considered to be the first German Romantic opera, its influence keenly felt in the music dramas of Richard Wagner, for one. Its Overture is unique in that it was among the first to provide a musical preview of the plot to the opera it precedes (through the introduction of music from arias, ensembles, and important scenes in the opera).

On Saturday night, Mr. Chung had the BSO playing Weber like a true German orchestra, with a solid bass foundation and rich, brass sonorities. Throughout the Overture’s slow introduction, the Orchestra’s tone was full-bodied and noble: the strings, in particular, displayed a rich, focused sonority that suited this music grandly. Mr. Chung’s conducting was, for the most part, straightforward, though he awkwardly drew out the ends of a couple of phrases.

While there was some scrappy string playing in the fast second half of the work, Mr. Chung brought out the colors of Weber’s vivid orchestration to dramatic effect, and he was helped along in this by some of the evening’s finest playing from the woodwind and brass sections. Overall, it is good to have Weber back on the program at Symphony Hall, and I look forward to the BSO’s take on his Overture to Euryanthe (with David Zinman) in January.

Today Samuel Barber is best known for a few pieces he wrote early in his career: the Overture to The School for Scandal, the brilliant Violin Concerto, his Essay no. 1 (for orchestra), and the Adagio for Strings. The centennial of his birth passed in 2010 with little fanfare: even the BSO—once the great champion of American composers—managed to neglect the occasion. Mr. Ohlsson’s appearance as soloist in Barber’s seldom-heard Piano Concerto (written for John Browning and the BSO in 1962) was, then, perhaps an effort to remedy a sin of omission on the Orchestra’s part, while also commemorating another event, the 30th anniversary of Barber’s death in 1981.

The work falls into three movements, the longest being the first. For those listeners familiar with Barber’s earlier music (such as the Violin Concerto), this opening movement might come as a shock, written as it is in a more angular, modernist style. The other movements, though, are echt-Barber: sensuously lyrical in the slow, second movement (adapted from a piece for flute and piano Barber composed in 1959) and driving with rhythmic vitality in the arresting finale. Though it has yet to establish itself as a repertoire standard, the Concerto was well received on its first hearing and won Barber his second Pulitzer Prize in 1963.

On Saturday Mr. Ohlsson, who has built a career championing American music, delivered a technically assured but emotionally distant interpretation of the demanding solo part.

Pianist Garrick Ohlsson was strangely detached from the Barber Piano Concerto.

His seeming detachment from the music was most frustrating in the enigmatic first movement, written as a series of disjunct vignettes tied together by the solo piano part. In his performance, the notes were present, but their underlying raison d’être absent. For his part, Mr. Chung did little to aid Mr. Ohlsson in enunciating the movement’s architecture: events (some quite beautiful) occurred, followed by others, though their interrelationships were never fully explored. Still, there were some exquisitely realized orchestral moments in this movement, particularly in the playing of principle oboe John Ferrillo and principle horn James Sommerville, who brought great warmth and character to their respective solos.

The second movement was more successful, as Mr. Chung drew a finely textured reading from the orchestra that conveyed its shape with clarity and elegance. Particularly notable were orchestral solos from principle flute Elizabeth Rowe and principle harp Jessica Zhou. While I would like to have heard Mr. Ohlsson provide a more poetic take on his part, the ensemble effectively conveyed Barber’s lyrical gifts.

The motoric finale was given a highly energetic reading, though at times the Orchestra’s attempts to realize Barber’s highly rhythmic writing became muddled. Mr. Ohlsson was most impressive in this third movement, tossing off fistfuls of notes with aplomb.

The concert’s real fireworks (or lack thereof) came after intermission, when Mr. Chung returned to lead a perplexing performance of Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique Symphony (no. 6).

The Symphony’s expansive opening movement was the most convincingly played of the four, despite some odd transitions between sections and occasional balance issues. As in the Weber and Barber, Mr. Chung made much of Tchaikovsky’s colorful orchestral palate; praise is due to the sensitive playing of principle bassoon Richard Svoboda and principle clarinet William Hudgins, whose handling of the movement’s famous clarinet solos were dispatched with warm, liquid tone. Tempos, for the most part, tended to be on the fast side, though the opening Adagio was taken at a surprisingly lugubrious pace. The most effective moments were to be found in the movement’s wild development section, which was given a thoroughly manic, seat-of-the-pants reading. In the movement’s slower music, though, Mr. Chung—presumably in an effort to milk the score’s emotional content—seemed content to speed up and slow down at will. The result was wholly contrived and unconvincing.

Mr. Chung’s penchant for swift tempos made for an interesting performance of the Symphony’s second movement. Here Tchaikovsky marked the tempo Allegro con grazia (fast but graceful), though for most of Saturday’s performance Mr. Chung only adhered to the first third of that instruction. The result was a stiff and graceless waltz that calls to mind a comment from the musicologist Joel Sheveloff: when the tempo and rhythmic profile of this movement are not followed sensitively, the music becomes “a love-waltz between two pygmy pachyderms.” So it was for much of Saturday night. Though Mr. Chung relaxed his grip on the ensemble in the movement’s middle section, allowing the music to breathe and dance, there was a driven quality to the performance that kept this most gracious of Tchaikovsky’s symphonic essays from ever coming to life.

Despite the BSO’s admirably virtuosic and highly energetic performance of Tchaikovsky

In contrast, the third movement is supposed to be fast and it began at an agreeably snappy pace, though as the music progressed it seemed to take on a maniacal character. Perhaps this was the effect Mr. Chung was after. It would have been nice, though, had he bothered to shape any incidental phrases that came along in the course of the movement’s 347 measures. Yes, this is a symphony of extremes and the third movement is filled with extreme dynamic markings. There are such things, though, as balance, phrasing, and structure—not to mention taste—that one hopes a conductor would take into consideration when preparing and rehearsing music of this scope and content.

All too often, I was left with the impression that Mr. Chung either felt he could ignore such details and no one would notice or that they simply didn’t fit his concept of the movement’s narrative structure, so he left them out. Regardless of the reasoning, the result was grotesque. Speed alone cannot make up for superficial musical insight. Despite orchestral playing of admirable virtuosity and high energy, the performance was was one of the most vulgar readings imaginable.

In the finale, Mr. Chung’s decision to not reseat the orchestra’s violins across the podium, as James Levine did, robbed the music to some degree of the stereophonic effect Tchaikovsky wrote into its opening pages (where the melody is passed between the violin sections). Still, there was a nice pacing to the shape of the movement’s main melody and a dramatic climax in its middle section. Also, the low brass chorale that leads into the recapitulation was played with great solemnity and rich tone. Unfortunately, the long diminuendo that closes the Symphony, though effectively executed by the cellos and basses, came across as less a dying gasp than a tepid nodding off.

While the BSO’s inventive program this week had the potential to plumb the heights and depths of human experience, Saturday’s performance generally lacked the necessary conviction, purpose, and mystery required to do so.

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.


  1. Dan Lobb on November 14, 2011 at 3:51 pm

    I attended the Friday performance, and the musicians played their hearts out for Chung (which Jonathan seems to acknowledge). Chung draws an emotional immediacy from his orchestras which contrasts with the pre-packaged, sanitized, “tasteful” performances we usually hear of this work.

    I heard him conduct the Mahler Sixth in Seoul in October, and his ability to develop long, natural phrases was revelatory. He is Principal Guest Conductor of the Dresden Staatskapelle, where he has developed a deep sense of orchestral sound. He carries with him a twenty year recording contract with Deutsche Grammaphon, which he could apply to the BSO, and a long list of distinguished recordings. He is known to develop positive personal relationships with his orchestra players. Is someone looking for a music director?

    • Jonathan Blumhofer on November 14, 2011 at 9:06 pm

      Hi Dan,

      Thank you for your comments. I certainly have no quibble with the BSO’s playing—technically, I thought this one of the best-played concerts they’ve given yet this season (and I do hope that came across in my review). My problems with the performance stem from Mr. Chung’s interpretation of the Tchaikovsky, which I found (for the reasons described above) unsuccessful.

      For what it’s worth, my favorite performance of the “Pathetique” Symphony is Leonard Bernstein’s highly eccentric live recording with the New York Philharmonic from 1986—hardly your “pre-packaged, sanitized, tasteful” performance. There is a conviction to the NYPO’s playing in that 25-year-old recording, though, that is electrifying, and that is the sort of connection I found wholly lacking at Symphony Hall on Saturday night. Honestly, when it comes to repertoire standards like the “Pathetique,” I am all for fresh interpretations and insight—they just need to work. I didn’t find any “emotional immediacy” in the stiffness of the second movement or the fast-for-the-sake-of-playing-fast third movement. In that context, there was little that could redeem the finale.

      As for Mr. Chung’s excellent work in Europe, I am familiar both with his conducting and his recordings (his Messiaen albums are, as far as I’m concerned, definitive), so I was surprised and not a little disappointed with what I heard on Saturday. I certainly bear him no grudge: he may be a fine choice for music director, and if the BSO brings him back in that capacity or as a guest, I would be happy to give him a fresh hearing with open ears.


  2. Dan Lobb on November 15, 2011 at 12:51 pm

    Jonathan, the famous Bernstein recording you refer to has been denounced by many critics as distorted and extreme in its tempos. Perhaps beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

    Also, you will hear much that is unusual in Koussevitsky’s BSO recording of the Pathetique, and Mravinsky’s LPO recording. There is much room for individuality in this work, and we should be cautious about applying such terms as “tasteless” and “grotesque” after a first hearing.

    • Jonathan Blumhofer on November 16, 2011 at 11:39 am

      Very true, Dan, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. And I am in complete agreement with you that there is much room for individuality in interpreting the Pathetique.

      While not begrudging Mr. Chung (or any musician) their right to bring fresh insight to any piece of music, it bears repeating that for a fresh interpretive approach to succeed, it needs to work, musically. For the reasons articulated in my review, I found Mr. Chung’s interpretation this past weekend highly unsatisfying. In writing that, I don’t mean to speak for the 2000+ people who also attended the concert in Symphony Hall (many of whom, I should point out, thought the performance worthy of a standing ovation)—that would be impossible; I simply articulate my opinion of what I heard.

  3. Dan Lobb on November 17, 2011 at 11:30 pm

    Jonathan, you are right, on Friday night, nearly everyone on the main floor rose to a standing ovation, and most of those in the balcony joined them. Obviously, the performance connected with them.

    It is almost impossible to get a ticket to Chung’s performances in Seoul or in Europe, and the man is (unlike some other candidates for the BSO post) blessedly free of ego or tantrums.

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