François-Xavier Roth with the BSO in January, with solo turns from Elizabeth Rowe (flute), Jessica Zhou (harp), and Renée Fleming (soprano)

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Conductor François-Xavier Roth. Photo Marco Borggreve.

Conductor François-Xavier Roth. Photo Marco Borggreve.

Boston Symphony Orchestra
January 7, 2016
Elizabeth Rowe, flute
Jessica Zhou, harp
François-Xavier Roth, conductor

January 14, 2016
Renée Fleming, soprano
François-Xavier Roth, conductor

The Boston Symphony Orchestra started the new year well with two programs under the direction of guest conductor François-Xavier Roth, who hails now from Cologne and is very active in Europe, much sought after. Conducting without baton, vigorous and engaged, Roth holds the players’ attention and gets what he wants. Orchestra and audience alike feel caught up in an unusually tense and purposeful address to the music at hand.

Roth’s first program was classical, with a French perspective. The concert began with François-Joseph Gossec’s Symphonie à 17 Parties from 1809, which sustains a grand and stately French Baroque mood in the form of a classical-style symphony, with sonata-form first movement, à la Haydn. The most arresting and original part of the piece is a highly fugal minuet in the minor—strange enough that one wanted to hear it twice. Right from the beginning of the symphony Roth showed himself as the conductor he would be throughout these concerts: he shaped phrases clearly, defined rhythms emphatically, and called on the orchestra for unusual concentration and focus.

The Gossec was followed by Mozart’s Concerto for Flute and Harp, written by the 22-year-old composer in Paris and first performed there. Perhaps French elegance, in style of life and in art, influenced the piece. Perhaps French elegance influenced Mozart altogether, going back to his visit to Versailles as a child. In any case, the Concerto offers an eloquent and songful flute and a harp part articulating many individual notes, like a guitar or piano—very little strumming. The slow movement is especially poignant, with a lyrical theme falling through deliquescent harmonies.  No feeling of French Baroque in this piece—rather, Watteau become music. BSO principal flute Elizabeth Rowe and principal harp Jessica Zhou played beautifully and achieved just the right tempo and mood—relaxed but with poise and grace—with a very cooperative Roth.

After intermission came Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony, a bit French in its original inspiration in Beethoven’s sympathy with Napoleon, which dissipated by the time Beethoven completed composition, due to Napoleon’s autocratic and imperial turn. The performance was impressive, but too fast in the three fast movements. The great opening Allegro con brio achieved a wonderful turbulence, tension, and uncertainty, but seemed rushed, the players scrambling at times, the movement lacking in weight and grandeur and the cultivation of silence and suspense in certain passages, such as the lead-up to the recapitulation of the opening material after the long and complex development section. This movement from 1804 opened the door to the next two centuries’ conception of the symphony as a journey, a philosophical quest with pauses, changes of direction, and epiphanies or breakthroughs. Roth forced it too much into a constrained up-tempo framework. The Scherzo was a bit too fast to relish the sense of a gradual awakening to life after the second-movement Funeral March, or the sense of a hunt with horns which Beethoven suggests—hunts have their leisurely quality. The Finale theme and variations, a celebration of the powers of music, had a nice sense of each variation’s own distinct character—playful, fierce, grand, wistful… Roth even used a string quartet for the early-on variation for strings—giving a sudden, and perfectly plausible, intimacy. One wished only for a little more space for breath at the movement’s transitions. We did speed along. The huge second movement Funeral March, though, was beautifully timed and shaded, John Ferillo’s prolonged oboe solo very touching, the horns led by James Somerville magnificent at their entry in the fugal passage. At the end of the concert Roth addressed the audience and said that the recently dead Pierre Boulez was on his mind while leading the Funeral March—and we could feel the steady passion and commitment as it played.

Roth’s second program, dedicated to Boulez’s memory and largely French, came off as one of the best concerts of the season. Roth opened with Debussy’s Jeux and closed with Stravinsky’s Petrushka, both works written for Serge Diaghilev and premiered in Paris by his Ballets Russes, the Debussy in 1913, the Stravinsky in 1911. Jeux was followed by Henri Dutilleux’s song cycle Le Temps l’Horloge (2007, expanded 2009), with soprano Renée Fleming—music influenced by and akin to Debussy, his sensuousness and his revolutionary alteration of time and breath in music. After intermission, Petrushka was preceded by a selection of Joseph Canteloube’s Songs of the Auvergne, with Fleming again, songs whose folk elements joined with the Stravinsky ballet. So, an interesting program that made sense, cohering in its contrasts, like Roth’s first.

Jeux (Games), written for a scenario involving three lovers or potential lovers and a tennis court, builds itself entirely from a simple set of chords and movement up and down a couple of intervals. Everything is a variation upon this beginning. There are many distinct little sections, with changing rhythm and tempo, instrumentation and orchestral color, mood and feeling. Debussy is amazingly inventive. Halfway through there is a lovely short duo for French horn and oboe—not something one commonly hears. Everything indicates the changing feeling of lovers. We go from interest, passion, and engagement, to rage, withdrawal, quiet enjoyment, acceptance of limitations, and an above-it-all willingness to move on. Lesser performances merge everything together into a continuous flow. Roth and the orchestra really put across the sense of many separate sections, each with its own character. One could only have wished for more cultivation of a lush string sound—something the BSO is highly capable of, though here and in other music Roth favored rather astringent strings. When the violins come in en masse in this piece, they render the most ecstatic and sensuous transports of the lovers. The orchestra should let go and indulge in it.

The BSO has commissioned and played a lot of Dutilleux over the years, and is celebrating his centenary this year with numerous performances. Dutilleux is an odd and unique composer, kin to Debussy and Ravel and indeed 19th-century French music, yet a contra-tonal modernist in his mature work, though not as bold a one as his older contemporary Messiaen or his younger one Boulez (who in fact didn’t like his work). Dutilleux creates a very special sound world compounded of sleek and long-lined phrases, slippery harmonies, obsession with small motif-fragments, tempo disorientation, and openness to the whimsical and incongruous—a bit of accordion here, of harpsichord there. It was good to hear the Le Temps l’Horloge (Time and the Clock) cycle, rendering witty, engaged, even earthy poems of Jean Tardieu, Robert Desnos, and Baudelaire in Dutilleux’s aestheticized and abstracted style—words and music jar in a way, but transformation occurs, the whole more than the sum of the parts. Renée Fleming’s voice was somewhat swamped by the orchestra here, though the orchestra sounded fairly delicate taken on its own—she seemed to be holding back a bit. And her diction was far from clear. She was giving us sounds more than words. But her voice blossomed after intermission in the Canteloube Auvergne songs, and sounded quite lovely. Diction was no problem, with lines like “Soun, soun, béni, béni, béni” and “Baïlèrô lèrô, lèro, lèro” repeated over and over. Keisuke Wakao’s large and plain oboe sound suited the rustic world of these songs.

Roth concluded with a gripping performance of Petrushka in the original and orchestrally fuller 1911 version. Like Jeux, Petrushka’s scenario focuses on a love triangle, in this case made up of three puppets—a sad clown, a ballerina, and a Moor—who come to life out of the atmosphere of a traditional Russian Shrovetide fair. And like Jeux, the work falls into many distinct sections, though more extended ones, depicting settings and narrative events—even to murder and resurrection—rather than the subtly shifting moods of modern sophisticated lovers whose identities blur. The world of Gogol rather than Proust. Roth and the orchestra conveyed the character of the episodes very well (seems to be a running theme here), with whirling lush orchestra at first, delicate dances later with solo violin or trumpet, shocks when necessary. Roth is a committed and convincing conductor. One hopes he will return to the BSO on a regular basis.

Charles Warren

About Charles Warren

Charles Warren studied literature and music formally and now teaches film history and analysis at Boston University and in the Harvard Extension School. He is the author of “T.S. Eliot on Shakespeare,” and edited and contributed to the volumes “Beyond Document: Essays on Nonfiction Film” and “Jean-Luc Godard’s ‘Hail Mary:’ Women and the Sacred in Film.”

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