Andris Nelsons in Boston…with Two Superb Concerts under the BSO’s New Assistant Conductor, Ken-David Masur, and an Appreciation of James Levine
Andris Nelsons has garnered a lot of attention during his first season as Music Director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra—much coverage in the local and even national press; receptions for the public and an exhibition with a talking hologram at Symphony Hall; placards on buses around Boston and in the subway. He threw out a ball for the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park. The BSO organization wants him talked about by the man and woman on the street—especially the younger set. It remains to be seen whether a new younger audience will be drawn to the BSO. Eventually, it’s the music that will matter, not publicity.
Nelsons has led some strong performances with the BSO, and a number not so strong. He is sought after for appearances in Europe, and highly touted there. He excites people and shows promise. Time will tell. But to get this phenomenon into perspective, something needs to be said about James Levine.
Levine’s years directing the BSO amounted to a Golden Age for this orchestra. Levine fully committed himself here, worked hard with the orchestra, made new appointments among the players, and lifted the orchestra to quite a higher level. It seemed proud of itself, for the first time in living memory. It played brilliantly well for Levine and for whoever came along. Levine led tense, exciting, innovative performances of the repertory from Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and Brahms, to Mahler, Debussy, Stravinsky, Bartok, and Schönberg, and on to great contemporaries such as Carter, Ligeti, and Harbison. He led full-scale operas of Beethoven, Berlioz, Verdi, and Wagner. Many great singers and instrumental soloists appeared here thanks to Levine. His declining health and resignation were a tragedy for the orchestra and for him. Happily, he has recovered his health well enough to lead the Metropolitan Opera again and its orchestra in concert performances of symphonic repertoire. He is at home and working well in New York. Of course there was frustration with Levine’s health problems and cancellations at the end of his tenure in Boston, but the fact needs to be acknowledged: this was the greatest era of the BSO since Koussevitzky.
What will happen now? Where are things going? During the search period, the BSO and master conductor Riccardo Chailly expressed interest in each other, but Chailly’s two-week visit to Boston was canceled due to health reasons, and the BSO, spooked about health issues after Levine, did not pursue Chailly. (The conductor turned up here this fall, fit and fully recovered, to lead a great concert of Beethoven and Mendelssohn with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra.) The most impressive visitors during the search period, besides older regulars Haitink, Dutoit, and Dohnanyi, not in the running for Music Director, were Vladimir Jurowski and Esa-Pekka Salonen. One doesn’t know if they were candidates to take over or if there was discussion with them. Nelsons in this period led a not very satisfactory Stravinsky Symphony of Psalms and Brahms Second Symphony at Tanglewood, a not very good Tchaikovsky Fifth Symphony in Boston, but a very effective Brahms Third Symphony (hard to bring off—so bravo!). After he was appointed Music Director, he led a stunning concert performance of Richard Strauss’s opera Salome, last spring.
Nelsons has now started in with the Boston Symphony, though with a shorter than normal season due to old commitments in Europe. Still, we have heard a lot. The best has been Russian material—and Strauss, seemingly a favorite and special interest of Nelsons—more is scheduled for later this season, and Elektra for next season. Nelsons led a tremendous performance of the Tchaikovsky Pathétique Symphony in October—sharp, moving, powerful while avoiding excess and special pleading. Best of all so far was a November performance of Rachmaninoff’s choral/orchestral work The Bells. Loosely based on the Edgar Allan Poe poem, this piece in four sections is strongly evocative of Russian country life, Russian winter, and Orthodox liturgy (the Cantata Singers here provided a nice complement with their excellent January performance of the composer’s a cappella All-Night Vigil). The Bells could not have been put across more effectively, with committed, focused singing by the Tanglewood Festival Chorus; soloists perfectly cast and suited to their parts (soprano Victoria Yastrebova, tenor Pavel Černoch, and bass-baritone Kostas Smoriginas); and Nelsons’s sense of color and drama. Also very effective was a performance of Sofia Gubaidulina’s highly spiritual violin concerto from the 1980s, Offertorium, with soloist Baiba Skride. This material requires belief—belief in the music and in its meaning—otherwise it sounds empty. And also a sense of momentum, in what otherwise can seem static. Nelsons and Skride held one’s attention and made the piece resonate. On the same program was the Sibelius Second Symphony, which had a nice earthy rhythm in the first movement, and whose slow movement, the heart of the piece, was properly anguished and intense—reflecting, some say, the suffering of Finland under Russian oppression. The playing overall on first night was rough hewn, and the finale tended to bombast. Word has it that by the fourth performance everything had been refined and that this served for the recent CD release, which has been much praised.
In the Russian vein, a real disappointment was the November performance of The Rite of Spring—brilliantly played by the orchestra, plenty of refinement and plenty of volume when apt—but something dead and static about the whole experience, no propulsion, mystery, or terror, nothing like what Levine or Frühbeck de Burgos or Giancarlo Guerrero gave us with this piece in recent years. Otherwise in the fall, Nelsons led a plausible Beethoven Eighth Symphony—earthy rhythm yet with an overall lightness and outdoor quality, and with phrasing that felt fresh and new, showing that he cared about the piece and had something to say with it. There was also a fine collaboration with Yo-Yo Ma on the Prokofiev Symphony-Concerto for Cello and Orchestra (though the piece is a bit wearing). The Gubaidulina was very special, and there was a nice brief contrapuntal choral piece by John Harbison, Koussevitzky Said, very well executed. But there were sizable yet not very substantial contemporary offerings as well: Australian Brett Dean’s Dramatis Personae, a trumpet concerto, and Ēriks Ešenvalds’ Latvian mixed-chorus piece Lakes Awake at Dawn. Levine led some difficult 20th-century and contemporary work, and some not so difficult, such as a good deal of Harbison—but everything had substance, work that could stand up to the classics.
Nelsons returned to Boston in January for two sets of concerts. The first gave us the Strauss Don Quixote, with cellist Gautier Capuçon and BSO Principal Violist Steven Ansell. This piece has very complex orchestral writing, and Nelsons led with loving attention to detail and color, and an insistence on clear textures. Both soloists sounded strong, speaking out their parts as the Don and Sancho Panza. The sheep bleated magnificently. This program also included Brahms’s Variations on a Theme by Haydn, in a reading that emphasized winds (as did Nelsons’s Beethoven Eighth) and the structure and bones of the piece, but didn’t get the full orchestral color and touching beauty that should flesh out this structure. The Haydn Symphony No. 90 came off all right, no special wit or insight, but was marred by coarse solo playing from Assistant Principal Oboist Keisuke Wakao.
The second concert began with the Mozart C-Minor Piano Concerto, with soloist Lars Vogt—a work of unsettling bleak chromaticism, slipping up and down the scale by half-steps with a feeling that something awful is about to happen, or has happened. Nelsons led with appropriate turbulence and severity, but Vogt, after a compelling solo entrance, became recessive and bland, and oboist Wakao really ruined the major-key slow movement with its dialogue between piano and winds—Wakao always played with restraint and elegance under Levine… After intermission Nelsons spoke to the audience and said he was embarking with the orchestra on “a Bruckner journey”—good news! And something Levine would not have undertaken. The performance that followed of the Seventh Symphony made a mixed impression. The big first movement with long spun-out melodic lines was very effective, with purposeful phrasing and a good sense of building tension. Moreover, the orchestra sounded as if it really relished playing Bruckner, making the special Brucknerian sounds, whether piping flute and oboe (here the superb Principal, John Ferillo) or massed strings or brass. The great Adagio, though, lost tension—the notes were all there, but not the drama of contrasts in mood and between sound and silence. The Scherzo was tossed off fine, and the Finale was propulsive, but a bit too fast, lacking in the grandeur it should have to take us back and recoup the first movement. Overall the performance was too much in-the-foreground, bright and brilliant but lacking in mystery and reflection. I am speaking of the first night. Our editor/publisher Michael Miller attended the third performance and remarked that he liked it very much—one keeps hearing that these performances grow and develop day by day. Nelsons returns in March with some exciting programming—the Mahler Sixth Symphony, the Shostakovich Tenth—more territory Levine would not have entered—the Beethoven Violin Concerto with Christian Tetzlaff, and, as said, more Strauss. We shall see.
In late January BSO Assistant Conductor Ken-David Masur (a bit older than Nelsons) took over concerts for an ailing Tugan Sokhiev, leading the Berlioz Corsaire Overture, the Saint-Saëns Cello Concerto No. 1 with a dynamic Johannes Moser as soloist, and Rimsky-Korsakov’s gorgeous Scheherazade. This was one of the best concerts of the year, with committed playing throughout and a high energy level. Masur is something special, and the orchestra clearly responds to him. Concertmaster Malcolm Lowe played more beautifully than ever, it seemed, in the recurring violin solo in the Rimsky, giving us Scheherazade’s own recurring voice. Masur took over again February 12th for Vladimir Jurowski, who withdrew due to visa problems. Masur led some excellent Debussy, featuring Principal Flute Elizabeth Rowe; Anatoly Liadov’s rousing “From the Apocalypse” (1912); and a revelatory and totally satisfying Suite from Stravinsky’s “Firebird,” with especially fine solo playing from Associate Principal Horn Richard Sebring. This “Firebird” had all the color, energy, and contrast in character from dance to dance that one could ask for, plus a remarkable transparency that made it clear just how inventive and masterful Stravinsky was as an orchestrator even at this early stage of his career. The program also included Harrison Birtwistle’s new, very individual, and quite substantial “Responses: Sweet Disorder and the Carefully Careless,” for piano and orchestra, with soloist Pierre-Laurent Aimard, and led by Stefan Asbury, who had led the Munich premiere. This work, full of the sounds and violence of ancient England mixed with the modern world, deserves full discussion on another occasion. Aimard was magnificent, with sharply clear phrasing and many fistfuls of chords turning over the half-hour course of the piece to obsessive fast runs and ripples, suggesting some kind of release, or birds. The turning point was perhaps a wonderful passage for muted trombones, sounding like New Orleans intruding into a Thomas Hardy or John Cowper Powys novel.