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Will the Real BSO Please Stand Up?

When James Levine fell on his arm at the end of the March 1st Beethoven/Schoenberg performance in Boston and consequently had to cancel his appearances with the Boston Symphony Orchestra during its U.S. tour – including its Washington stop on a warm, gorgeous Saturday – Marek Janowski (New York, March 6th) and David Robertson stepped in to ensure the show went on. Currently at the helm of the St. Louis Symphony, David Robertson (Orli Shaham’s husband) is hailed as one of the great new American conductors. The performance at the Kennedy Center’s Concert Hall showed why. There might have been a couple hundred people who did not show up for the lack of Levine (a shame for the lack of their exposure to Lieberson’s and Carter’s work), but those who did surely had no regrets, nor reason for any complaints about the conducting.

Related Articles & Reviews:

Frank Pesci, Jr., Peter Lieberson’s Neruda Songs (Ionarts, November 28, 2005)

Philip Kennicott's preview: James Levine, Heard but Not Seen (Washington Post, March 11, 2006)

Ronald Blum, Met Conductor to Miss Rest of Season (Associated Press, March 12, 2006)

Tim Page, The Boston Symphony, Landing On Its Feet (Washington Post, March 13, 2006)
The program started with a taut, light-footed Till Eulenspiegel – Richard Strauss’s op. 28 – in which the BSO and Robertson demonstrated wonderful sound and astounding precision. Even when it got loud, it never got heavy. There was a sprightly, gentle feel to many passages. A more searing, more bombastic, more powerful account would have been possible, but by no means necessary.

Following the Strauss were Peter Lieberson’s Neruda Songs for mezzo-soprano and Orchestra, a commission by the BSO for its 125th anniversary. Much has been written about those five lovely, poetic, enchanting songs as well as the performing mezzo, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, including her recent bout with illness. There is little to add now. Mrs. Hunt Lieberson, sure enough, is one of the very outstanding mezzos in times that are generally blessed with great mezzo-sopranos; she has impeccable musical taste, intelligence, is incapable of gratuitous phrasing or showing off – and she has a stage presence that beams with dignity.

Photo by Lorraine Hunt LiebersonPeter Lieberson’s songs are not only set to the Chilean poet’s love songs, they also feel and sound of true love. They shall be in the repertoire – and not just of co-commissioners BSO and LAPhil – for a long time to come. They are of a John Williams-like accessibility, but cast in a sophisticated (yet never obscure) language. Earnest, tonal beauties that also rang of Ravel (the piano concerto’s slow movement called itself to mind a few times) and a bit of John Adams’s El Niño, the five songs had depth and were, for all the mentioned analogies, quite unlike anything I’ve heard. More difficult to describe than enjoy, for sure – and utterly touching. Just like Frank Pesci in his review, I found the only weak spot to be the superficial maracas ra-cha-cha-ing in the song that should have been the dramatic center. It’s time that these instruments be taken away from composers… I’ve not yet heard them put to good use; to bad, plenty!

available at Amazon
P.Lieberson, Neruda Songs,
L.Hunt-Lieberson / J.Levine / Boston SO

Carter, the grand old man of American music, is still going strong – and his Three Illusions which was also premiered and commissioned by the BSO is just one of three major pieces he’s recently sent into the light of day. The first illusion, Mocomicón, is inspired by a Don Quixote episode and entertained with its almost blues-y, rakish rhythms and a stern string veneer. Lecherous Jupiter’s excursion with Juventas (she ended up the Fountain of Youth) were the content of the second illusion, which had slightly slower juices flowing. Once uncorked by an initial pop, the eerie sounds of More’s Utopia were allowed to enter the concert hall – certainly more eerie than filled with that (after all utopian) bliss.

A big, bold, and rousing (though never lush) Beethoven Seventh capped off the afternoon. Robertson, whose primary concerns seem to be structure, detail, and clarity, had the crowd applauding already after the first movement. “Don’t worry – Beethoven wouldn’t have minded at all” he commented and gave the audience the opportunity to applaud between further movements without fear of seeming ignorant – alas they didn’t take him up on it. And that, despite a second movement that really would have deserved spontaneous, informed applause. Rarely have I heard secondary or tertiary voices so clearly; the voices of the first cellos and violas came out nicely where they submerge all too often (bars 27-50), the corresponding line in the second violins thereafter a little less so. The last movement shot out of the gates, champagne for the ears and generally an adrenaline rush. It’s a darn good symphony by a composer who didn’t write bad symphonies – and a performance such as the BSO’s and Robertson’s only reminds again of its greatness.

For upcoming performances of great artists substituting for other cancelling great artists check out WPAS's or the BSO's schedules... or keep tuned to ionarts.