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Ionarts at Large: BSO Tackles Difficult Work at Tanglewood

Conductor Giancarlo Guerrero leads the BSO and pianist Ingrid Fliter (photo by Hilary Scott)

It was reasonable to leave the Friday evening concert of the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood in a relaxed mood. A cool breeze blanketed the Koussevitzky Music Shed as the orchestra finished a symphony-free program with soft, melodic works: Benjamin Britten’s arrangement of the Blumine movement from Mahler's third first symphony, and Brahms’ Second Serenade in A. Nashville Symphony Orchestra Music Director Giancarlo Guerrero led both works ably, with strong control over sound and phrasing. Skip ahead 24 hours to Saturday night and anyone still feeling the calming effects of those works was shaken out of their relaxed state by the pounding E minor chords for percussion and brass of John Adams’s massive Harmonielehre.

Guerrero again was leading the Boston players, providing relative consistency after five weekends of guest conductors as well as one weekend where Music Director Andris Nelsons was on the podium. With a schedule at Tanglewood that asks the orchestra to mount three different programs each weekend with minimal rehearsal, programming Harmonielehre was somewhat risky. Mixing elements of minimalism — pulsating rhythms, repetition and quicksilver ornamentation — with more traditional harmonies, the dense, three-part work is loaded with constant movement and is a heavy lift on few rehearsals. Perhaps this explains why it was the orchestra’s first performance of what has become one of the most successful post-WWII compositions.

Fortunately the BSO had several factors in its favor. A technically sound conductor with a clear beat, Guerrero is very comfortable with contemporary music. Second was the orchestra’s world-class skill and musicianship. The combination yielded an accurate first performance, although one that seemed to sacrifice speed and interpretation for safety, particularly in the first movement, whose lack of energy negated many of Adams’s musical effects.

The slower Part II, “The Anfortas Wound,” named for the legendary Fisher King, yielded a far better result. The somber movement’s second climax, quoting the screaming chords of the Adagio of Mahler’s tenth symphony, was appropriately vexing. Ditto an extended piccolo trumpet solo, performed with a gorgeous, otherworldly sound by Thomas Rolfs. The contrasting third part, “Meister Eckhardt and Quackie,” emanates from a dream Adams had of the German theologian (1260-1328) flying with Adams’ daughter, Emily, on his shoulders. Accordingly it’s a swirling, uplifting movement. Toward the end of it, Guerrero increased the tempo and energy level, leading to a triumphant conclusion on an E-flat major chord.

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The Argentine pianist Ingrid Fliter had the unenviable task of being a late replacement for Daniil Trifonov, one of classical music’s current “It” pianists, whose ear malady prevented him from traveling. A Chopin specialist, Fliter was more than up to the task of dispatching Chopin’s second piano concerto. Her light touch and fine technique were well suited to this composition, completed when Chopin was just 20. It made one wonder how a more demonstrative player, like Trifonov, would have handled the concerto. Again for Guerrero and the BSO, though, it was more a matter of keeping soloist and orchestra together throughout the piece than making bold interpretive statements. Fliter cooperated, keeping tempi steady and eschewing rubato, allowing the music, rather than her technical prowess, to take the lead. To his credit, Guerrero proved a sensitive collaborator, following Fliter expertly. As was the case in the Adams, Guerrero was most effective in the middle slow movement, said to be a paean to Chopin’s boyhood amours, as he correctly highlighted the interplay between Fliter and bassoonist Richard Svoboda.

Guerrero’s comfort with slow movements gave your reviewer concern about the final work, Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks of Richard Strauss. There was little need to worry. The orchestra bounded through the Strauss, a Boston Symphony staple, alternating between loud and soft passages, climaxing with a raucous gallows scene. Hornist James Sommerville handled the solo horn parts with style and William R. Hudgins was appropriately irreverent on clarinet. Indeed Guerrero proved adept in both quiet moments and boisterous ones.

1 comment:

Sixtus Beckmesser said...

A minor quibble: Blumine is the rejected second movement from Mahler's first symphony, not his third.