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.
The Canadian-American conductor and concert organist, Justin Bischof, whose performances of Beethoven's Seventh and Ninth Symphonies impressed me greatly last year, has returned to New York City after several years working in Westchester County, where he successfully designed and funded a splendid mid-sized organ at the Church of St. James the Less in Scarsdale and led numerous concerts with the Canadian Chamber Orchestra of New York. Recently he conducted an outstanding concert with William Byrd's Mass in Four Voices and Palestrina's Missa Papae Marcelli. Now, he moves to the 20th century with two of its greatest works for chamber orchestra, Richard Strauss's Metamorphoses for 23 solo strings and Shostakovich's Chamber Symphony, which is in fact Rudolf Barshai's arrangement of the composer's String Quartet No. 8.
You never know when San Francisco will prove even weirder than you think, but Fleet Week is surely a good candidate for strangeness at the symphony. The US Navy's Blue Angels air ballet is a reliable tourist magnet when it comes to town, drawing unaccustomed crowds far and wide, and some visitors, suitably strafed and deafened, wind up at the symphony. This explains Bermuda shorts and flip flops in Saturday's audience and a tendency to applaud in the wrong places. I'm not sure it explains an ill-tempered dowager who shouted her disapproval of the music and had to be removed. Nor did anyone, official or otherwise, manage to decode bizarre noises repeatedly emanating from, well. somewhere....I get ahead of myself. It was an interesting evening!
Writing here recently about last season at the Boston Symphony, I had recourse more than once to the phrase “just notes going by” in response to Andris-Nelsons-led performances that I did not like (I did praise a number of performances as well). I am happy to say that I think no one would say “just notes going by” about the recent, September 28th concert which opened the orchestra’s subscription series for 2017-2018. First, Nelsons and the orchestra and soloist Paul Lewis presented a definite view of the Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 4 in G-major, Opus 58; they had something to say with it. And the large Shostakovich Symphony No. 11 (“The Year 1905”) which followed, seemed to come into its own and express itself as fully as one could imagine.
Boston has had a very good music season since the first of the year. Notably, Andris Nelsons has established himself ever more fully as leader of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. After a triumphant concert performance of Strauss’s Elektra in the fall, Nelsons came back with especially strong accounts of three large-scale symphonies: the Shostakovich Eighth in March, and the Bruckner Third and Mahler Ninth in April. All were brilliantly played by the orchestra, which seems to have accommodated itself to Nelsons very well.
As collectors know, exploring outside the basic repertory is often both frustrating and rewarding. The search for significant neglected music, one learns early, is not so easy as it appears. Many worthy pieces one falls in love with turn out to be partial works of genius, with uninspired moments we choose to forgive, defects of length and proportion, or performing requirements condemning them to obscurity.
The fall 2015 orchestral season at Carnegie Hall was dominated by the Boston Symphony Orchestra's traditional three-concert visit, this time in October, and a five-concert traversal of Beethoven's symphonies by the Berlin Philharmonic under their outgoing principle conductor/artistic director, Simon Rattle. Both had their joys and peculiarities, but only Berlin confronted us with any actual disappointments.