Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony are in fine form here, satisfying guides, as always, in their approach to the ironies and tragedies of the Shostakovich symphonies. Indeed, now that we know him well in Boston, it has become clear Nelsons is consistent there in the way he approaches music of this kind. But he illustrates, you might say, along with special romantic insights, the sins of his virtues. Nelsons is what Sir Thomas Beecham would have called a “ritardando” conductor. One notices this not so much in tempo variance as in the tendency to prepare for and draw out a cadence. Nelsons is not slow. But one is nearly always aware of a certain smoothness in transitions from phrase to phrase and a roundedness in the brass sonority he encourages from the BSO.
Articles by Steven Kruger
What a wonderful work is Barber's First Symphony! I will argue in a moment that it is America's greatest. If I review our program a bit backwards this time, it's because we don't hear this piece often enough—or nearly at all in San Francisco. (The last outing here was in 1963 under Howard Mitchell). But it was worth the wait, not the least because of James Gaffigan's white-hot performance. Indeed, Barber's concluding timpanic growl brought the audience to its feet screaming, a fitting wind-up for a concert of bravos, and reaffirmed our sense that James Gaffigan has become a major conductor.
There's something timeless, solid and reassuring about attending a concert in Pittsburgh. The place seems contented. "The burghers are industrious" is an old fashioned way you might put it. Citizens seem to take themselves seriously. Businessmen still wear ties. Nobody pushes and shoves, the way New Yorkers do in that elbow war of a city. People make time to talk to each other in line.
Let it never be said that an evening of Lutheran virtue makes for date night in San Francisco. Absent last Friday from our grey-haired audience huddling into its winter coats were the backless dresses and sculpture-worthy flashes of leg which usually cheer the frisky. Two gay men I passed in the crowd were no happier about it: "Bach only brings out the old men," sighed one ruefully. But there was a fascination for me in what turned out to be a solid, indeed old-fashioned evening of Victorian-style uplift. In particular, I was eager to encounter live Mendelssohn's Lobgesang Symphony-Cantata ("The Song of Praise"), sometimes called his Second Symphony. It was composed in 1840 to celebrate Gutenberg's invention of moveable type (ed.), but receives here its first San Francisco performance.