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The Other BSO

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Bartók, Piano Concertos, K. Zimerman, L. O. Andsnes, H. Grimaud, P. Boulez

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Mozart, Symphonies (14, 18, 20, 39, 41), Boston Symphony Orchestra,
J. Levine
The resignation of James Levine left some big question marks for the Boston Symphony Orchestra's visit to the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, presented by Washington Performing Arts Society on Saturday afternoon. Jens's reports on the youngish Latvian conductor Andris Nelsons made me wish that the Washington concert had fallen to him, as the New York one did. Instead we had the journeyman combination of conductor Roberto Abbado (cousin nephew of Claudio) and pianist Peter Serkin (son of Rudolph), both fine musicians doomed to be perpetually overshadowed by more famous relatives. Actually, the program they put together at short notice was a lot more interesting than what Levine had planned -- Mozart’s “Jupiter” symphony and Schumann’s third, noteworthy mostly because Levine was going to be conducting them. This concert was the penultimate event in the Ionarts Week of Four Orchestras -- along with the NHK, the local BSO, and the NSO (the only one I had to miss was the University of Maryland Symphony, fortunately covered by Andrew Lindemann Malone) -- and comparison was not only inevitable but obligatory.

Boston has managed to hold on to its accustomed place in the rankings of the Big Five American Orchestras, something that Levine's leadership has strengthened, although the worries about his health undermining the efforts to improve the orchestra were rampant. The organization seems fiscally sound -- there is a dizzying number of endowed chairs for lead players, across all sections, for example -- and the playing remained at a very high level, especially the smooth unity of the strings and the imperious power of the brass, although not so far above our two local orchestras as one might have expected. Abbado is to blame for competent but somewhat predictable interpretations of two very mainstream symphonies, beginning with Haydn's Symphony no. 93, one of the London symphonies. We are always happy to hear Haydn programmed, and Abbado gave the first and last movements crisp articulation and line, mostly allowing the orchestra its head in terms of pacing, rather than fighting with them. Only the third movement had a slightly affected approach to the pickup of the main theme, given an increasingly mannered lengthening. The various solos were all pleasing, especially the string quartet that opens the Largo movement and the hilariously belched low C, marked fortissimo, from the bassoon that ends it.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, Abbado delivers the Boston Symphony Orchestra safely (Washington Post, March 21)

Alex Baker, Boston in DC, sans Levine (Wellsung, March 20)

Jeremy Eichler, For guest conductor Andris Nelsons, an auspicious BSO debut (Boston Globe, March 19)

James R. Oestreich, A Fresh Face Confronts a Seasoned Mahler (New York Times, March 18)

Anthony Tommasini, Boston Symphony Shows Verve Even Without Levine (New York Times, March 16)

Geoff Edgers, After the maestro (Boston Globe, March 13)

George Loomis, BSO/Lehninger, Symphony Hall, Boston (Financial Times, March 7)

Tom Service, Birtwistle premiere (The Guardian, March 6)

Rodney Lister, Birtwistle and Schuller Concertos (Sequenza 21/, March 6)
Bartók's third piano concerto was rather bland, but this is as much the fault of the composer as the performers -- it is a late work, conceived for Bartók's wife, and its more tonal, less experimental character is as retrogressive as it is valedictory. Serkin played with a sense of gentlemanly restraint, his touch a little less than distinct in some of the faster passages, but with careful phrasing. The best moments were in the evocative night music of the slow movement: the insectoid buzzing of the strings, the bird calls traded among the winds and piano. That movement's Coplandesque chorale opening, with its gauzy, evanescent string writing and jazzy piano harmonies, makes one wonder what sort of second American career Bartók could have had (perhaps in Hollywood?) if he had lived longer. The third movement, where the folk-inspired, almost barbaro Bartók suddenly returns, was taken at a cautious tempo, but it had some raucous appeal, as in the fun fugato section. Somewhat worryingly, Serkin's arms did seem to shake at times, usually while holding long notes -- involuntary tremor or deliberate gesture? -- but he was still capable of admirable control of a phrase.

By comparison to Mario Venzago's striking, unexpected interpretation of Beethoven's fifth symphony in Baltimore the night before, Abbado's choices at the podium had few surprises in this famous work. It was the sort of utterly Romantic fifth symphony that is heard on many classic recordings, long on agitation and volume -- indeed, at times so earth-shatteringly loud as to be uncomfortable. The generative kernel of the entire work, those famous first eight notes, sat on the page, loud and hammered like so much of the piece but going nowhere. Even the slow movement, taken at a more traditional and slower tempo, was forceful and the third movement kept strictly in tempo. The transition to the extremely fast finale was particularly tense, the rumble of the timpani muffled in the distance. Abbado emphasized some details of the score, almost half-heartedly: the oboe solo that interrupts the first movement's recapitulation (and the sound of that instrument, in general) was much better in Baltimore, and the horns had just as many minor issues in both orchestras. So, Boston may have the edge in overall sound, by a length, but points to Baltimore for a more interesting interpretation of this symphony and points also to Christoph Eschenbach and the NSO for the more interesting programming.

The next visiting orchestra on the WPAS roster is the St. Petersburg Philharmonic, which comes to Strathmore next month (April 12, 8 pm) with cellist Alisa Weilerstein. Yuri Temirkanov is scheduled to lead this tour, but the name of conductor Nikolai Alexeev has also been mentioned. Let the speculation begin!

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