Excitement at the Boston Symphony—Lots of It! But Questions Remain

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Christian Tetzlaff with the BSO and Andris Nelsons. Photo Liza Voll.

Christian Tetzlaff with the BSO and Andris Nelsons. Photo Liza Voll.

Symphony Hall, Boston, April 4, 2015
Andris Nelsons conducts the Boston Symphony
Christian Tetzlaff, violin

Shostakovich, Passacaglia from “Lady Macbeth of the Mstensk District”
Beethoven, Violin Concerto
Shostakovich, Symphony No. 10

The perfect word to describe Andris Nelsons’ conducting is “exciting.” He elicits spectacular playing from the Boston Symphony and knows how to mold the sound of the orchestra to his taste. The strings now sound rich, deep, and solid rather than airy, transparent and elegant, as was their traditional, French–flavored style. This works well in a German-Russian program; I am curious to hear what they (Nelsons and the orchestra) will do with canonical French material such as the orchestral works of​ Ravel.

Nelsons does not stand up straight and beat patterns, at least not for very long. He has a wide choreographic repertory, including some (deliberately?) awkward-looking postures which must certainly get the players’ attention. One involves clutching the podium rail with his left hand (arm twisted a bit behind his back), his body listing to the left, right shoulder pointing to the ceiling above the low brass in the far right corner, and right arm flailing as if signaling to a rescue helicopter.  Another is the forward-bending crouch, not the ducking down for a subito pianissimo that Beethoven is said to have employed, also used effectively by Osmo Vänska, but a desperate bid to make intense personal contact with a section from which he wishes to elicit an extraordinary response. All of this is highly effective, no doubt due to an extremely friendly demeanor, apparently devoid of the tyrannical affect characteristic of old-style maestros. Nelsons projects a personal sense of urgency—“this is what I need” as compared with the urgency projected, for example, by a more didactic Stéphane Denève who led a superb Berlioz concert with the TMC Orchestra last summer and whose sense of urgency clearly said “This is what the music needs.”

My first review of Nelsons was of a BSO Tanglewood program of Brahms’ Second Symphony and Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms. My headline was “Wagnerian Brahms, Brahmsian Stravinsky.” I was clearly critical of the stylistic choices being made regarding the sonority and expressive (or in the case of Stravinsky, non-expressive) gestures being employed. For the present program, a similar complaint could be filed against the performance of the Beethoven Violin Concerto, although the soloist was clearly a complicit co-defendant (as can be confirmed from listening to his recording of the work with another conductor, David Zinman) and the unorthodox style was stimulating rather than questionable. More about that later. As for the Shostakovich, that is another matter entirely. Like Mahler or possibly even more so, Shostakovich’s symphonies are open to a wide range of equally valid interpretations. These works are intensely personal statements despite their epic sweep, and the tenor of the statement depends a great deal on what you think Shostakovich was trying to say. Whether you agree or not, Nelsons’ stylistic choices are never dumb—he balances the emotional temperature he generates (warm to very hot) with a clear sense of how the structure of the music unfolds. It is hard to fault a Shostakovich performance that projects smoldering intensity in the long and often repetitious passages that can sometimes feel idiosyncratic or self-indulgent, but can also feel neurotic, obsessive, or constrained. Beyond general issues of style, both Shostakovich readings on this program withstood the pressure toward indulging in the moment by virtue of overwhelming structural tension.

Symphony no. 10 is my candidate for the one that is most perfectly crafted as well as most expressively powerful and trenchant member of Shostakovich’s canon. Despite its shorter length than, say, no. 11, it seems to me to contain much more music and to make a larger and more powerful statement. I’m surprised to see that it runs close to an hour; it feels taut and to the point at each moment. The entire statement becomes a matter of life and death. If the death is indeed that of Stalin, then the life is that of those who survived him, bearing the psychic scars and traumas that go with survival, but also, finally, the relief of the weight being lifted. (“Getting on with your life” after 25 years of terror is no easy project.) During the bleakness of long stretches in the first movement, the composer’s narrative voice in this performance was imbued by the performers with an indication of compassion. The second movement’s supposed portrait of Stalin was that of a monstrous juggernaut raking over the land and people with terror, not one that slowly gathers malice (as in Symphony no. 7) but appearing full-blown from the first moment. Here Nelsons’ urgent requirement of intensity was answered by the string players in a manner that was startling even to those familiar with the score; those low brasses, blatting out the composer’s musical monogram, also surpassed expectations. That Nelsons operates intensely both in the moment and as a structural shaping force was demonstrated by his careful control over the strangely numb third movement which exhibits one of the composer’s most individual tones: a bleak, drifting, yet heart-rending, post-traumatic journey with no apparent destination. The conductor aligned the many wind solos here into a univocal state, a demonstration of impressive control. The final movement’s hard-won achievement of a celebratory mood is not free of the irony that it may come too early, full of caveats, as if looking over the shoulder, aware that the force behind the monstrosity could return all too easily. This elicited some more high-voltage ensemble precision from the winds, an impressive exhibition of pure orchestral virtuosity.

The migration of the core orchestral repertory from Beethoven to Mahler and beyond started in 1960 in America, thanks to Leonard Bernstein. The character and mission of orchestras has followed suit. The big orchestral events that seem to attract the most audience excitement are for post-Wagnerian symphonic works, including those of modernists like Stravinsky, Bartok, and even Messiaen that used to scare audiences off. Such works offer visceral excitement, kaleidoscopic color, powerful emotional panoramas, and catharsis. Should those continue to be the preferences of symphonic audiences, then the Boston Symphony is in good hands with their new conductor, if they can hold on to him. On either side, chronologically, of this relatively new core, however, there are two or three other repertories that orchestra directors might concern themselves with. Finding new and vital ways to present older repertory, both familiar and unfamiliar, is a big challenge today: the familiarity of Haydn and Mozart’s late symphonies and all of Beethoven’s means that performances need to be freshly conceived through a stylistically knowledgeable lens in order to reveal that these works can live vitally in the present rather than sit on a dusty museum shelf. Conductors like the Fischers (Adam and Ivan) have demonstrated how to do this, taking many cues from the early music movement. Taking a pro-active role in performing and commissioning new compositions is a second area that is called for in a music director, much discussed in the wake of Alan Gilbert’s announced departure from the New York Philharmonic next year. Gilbert was exemplary in this regard; I am not familiar with Nelsons’ track record in this area, nor has he clearly signaled his taste for new styles and living composers. Three of the contemporary pieces on the BSO’s subscription concerts led by Nelsons this season have been works in the orchestra’s repertory or by associated composers. Whether Nelsons will incline toward Baltic composers, Russians, Eastern Europeans, Americans, or an international array is presently unknown. Only one work from the past season offers any indication, a work by Latvian composer Erik Esenvelds.  A third area, neglected or forgotten repertory, has been the special area of the American Symphony Orchestra under Leon Botstein’s direction that has established programming trends both here and abroad. Whether this is an interest of Nelsons is equally unknown.

In their rendition of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, Nelsons and his brilliant soloist Christian Tetzlaff took an unusual approach. Tetzlaff’s individualistic interpretation teases out the military tropes in the first movement and foregrounds them: drum taps, marching rhythms, folk-style melodies such as soldiers might sing on the way to battle or afterwards, and stormy passages that one is used to hearing as momentary contrasts rather than central to the affective heart of the piece. The sorrowful minor material of the development has always reminded me of the lamentations of Gluck’s Orpheus on the death of Eurydice, but here felt more like a lament for fallen comrades. Most violinists have conceived of the solo part as lyrical and serene, floating high above the warm, earthy support of the orchestra. Tetzlaff’s protagonist is anything but serene: his phrases constantly push and pull against the march pulse, a restless, rebellious and often aggressive force that stirs up passion and aims at conflict. The proficiency of the playing was not aimed at an Orphic perfection, but rather a Dionysian turbulence. Teztlaff’s cadenza was a transcription of the one Beethoven wrote for his piano version of this concerto, which includes a significant accompanying timpani part. Beethoven’s cadenza is a composition within a composition, including what sounds like a self-contained little soldier’s song surrounded by suggestions of brass fanfares and military tattoos on the drums. It is a bold excursion and convincing in terms of Tetzlaff’s overall approach, all original and refreshing. It has been pointed out that many of Beethoven’s piano concerto movements incorporate a military topic, 1 and when Beethoven shifted from violin to piano as soloist in this work, he may have shifted his idea about its affect in the same direction. Thus, what Tetzlaff did was essentially to re-read the idea of the transcription back onto the original scoring.

Given the soloist’s initiative in shaping this particular performance, it remains unclear what Nelsons will do with the classical symphonic repertory on his own. Seiji Ozawa was particularly weak in this material, Bernard Haitink has been a curator of fine traditional-style performances, James Levine infuses passion into a classically-informed approach. In a way, this is the most difficult area for a music director of a modern orchestra. It is the one about which I am most interested to see Nelsons’ approach. It is hard to imagine him failing to get worked up and excited by Beethoven’s incendiary symphonic works. How he will deal with the subtleties and wit of Haydn or the restrained lyricism of Mozart are important questions. Whether the results will resemble this concerto performance, offering similarly unusual new perspectives in highly charged readings must remain a matter of significant interest.

  1. “Further proof of the authenticity of the piano transcription of the Violin Concerto is furnished by Beethoven’s magnificent cadenzas, with the combination of piano and timpani in the first movement. (As we know, he wrote no cadenzas for the original version.) They in fact rehabilitate his authorship and, with the daring inclusion of the timpani, are a sign of the development of an artistic idea that represented a contemporary tribute to the military character of the piano concerto which had already manifested itself earlier in the literal sketches of the C minor Concerto, now emerged with increasing flourish in this Opus 61a and ultimately reached its culmination at the close of the E flat major Concerto, Op. 73, from 1810.” Hans-Werner Küthen.
About the author

Larry Wallach

Larry Wallach is a pianist, musicologist, and composer who lives in Great Barrington, Massachusetts and heads the Music Program at Simon’s Rock College of Bard. He has also taught composition at Bard College. He studied piano privately with Henry Danielowitz and Kenneth Cooper, and was trained at Columbia University where he studied music history with Paul Henry Lang, performance practices with Denis Stevens, and composition with Otto Luening, Jack Beeson, and Charles Wuorinen. He earned a doctorate in musicology in 1973 with a dissertation about Charles Ives. In 1977, he was awarded a grant to become part of a year-long National Endowment for the Humanities seminar at the University of North Carolina directed by William S. Newman, focussing on performance practices in earlier piano music. He went on to participate in the Aston Magna Summer Academy in 1980, where he studied fortepiano with Malcolm Bilson, both privately and in master classes.

Larry Wallach has been an active performer of chamber music with harpsichord and piano, and of twentieth century music. He has collaborated with harpsichordist Kenneth Cooper, with recorder virtuoso Bernard Krainis, with violinist Nancy Bracken of the Boston Symphony, with violinist/violist Ronald Gorevic, with gambist Lucy Bardo, and with his wife, cellist Anne Legêne, performing on both modern and baroque instruments. He has appeared with the Avanti Quintet, the New York Consort of Viols, and is a regular performer on the “Octoberzest” series in Great Barrington. He has been on the staffs of summer early music workshops at World Fellowship and Pinewoods Camp.
In 1996, he presented a program at the Bard Music Festival devoted to Charles Ives designed around a performance the composer’s Second Violin Sonata along with all the source tunes that are quoted in it. Part of this program was repeated at Lincoln Center in NY. He has also appeared on programs in Washington DC, and at St. Croix VI. As a composer, his works have been heard in New York, Boston, Amherst, the Berkshires, and at Bard College.

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