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Review: Boston Symphony Presents a Well Balanced Program at Carnegie

By Brian Taylor, Contributing Writer, March 3, 2017

The Boston Symphony continued its recent three concert visit to Carnegie Hall on Wednesday, March 1 with a program balancing a rarely performed twentieth century work with repertory staples. Andris Nelsons, a 38 year old Latvian conductor, made his debut with the BSO here in 2011 as a last-minute replacement for an ailing James Levine, and is now in his third season as Music Director of this venerated American orchestra. This evening’s balanced program provided an intriguing glimpse into how the young conductor is shaping this beloved ensemble.

The program began with American composer Gunther Schuller’s Seven Studies on Themes of Paul Klee, arguably his most enduring piece, and notable as an example of what he termed “Third Stream,” music that incorporates both classical and jazz. Composed in 1959, this suite of tone poems take their inspiration from paintings by Klee.

Under the exuberant Nelsons, the orchestra played confidently. Capturing the music’s cinematic atmosphere, the violin section painted shimmering silver phrases in “Antique Harmonies,” and Nelsons drew characterful playing from the woodwinds in “Abstract Trio,” in which Schuller ingeniously uses orchestration to convey the melancholic images in the Klee painting. In the jazzy “Little Blue Devil,” which Nelsons conducted with breezy style, the orchestra played impressively as an ensemble, swinging where most classical groups would falter, grounded by a beautiful walking bass and a coolly swinging brass section. Superb oboe playing transported us to North Africa in “Arabian Town,” in long-winded melodies on Tunisian scales. This particular corner of twentieth century American music is underappreciated, and tonight’s audience appeared to genuinely enjoy these alternately coloristic and austere mid-century gems.

Next, Emmanuel Ax, one of today’s most celebrated pianists, joined the orchestra to play Mozart’s grand and serene Piano Concerto No. 22 in E flat major, K. 482. Ax’s fluid sweep in Mozart’s florid piano passages is more difficult to achieve than it may seem, and brought to mind the quote by Artur Schnabel that Mozart’s piano music is “…too easy for children, and too difficult for artists.”

Ax’s experienced artistry was pivotal in shaping this performance, which emphasized lightness and sweep. The orchestra, which included clarinets (a recent innovation when Mozart composed the concerto in 1785) to delightful effect, was not always pristinely together (at times the brass and percussion seemed to be dragged along by the soloist and the strings). The melodious first movement built to a splendid cadenza from Ax with soaring arpeggios and effortless trills infused with dynamic expectation. The emotional second movement, a set of variations in C minor, features the dark timbre of muted strings, and Ax tastefully coaxed a singing tone from the piano. The unique third movement, which begins surreptitiously, was played lightly, and with great verve. Ax and Nelsons emphasized the joking side of Mozart’s personality, most revealingly in the little surprise detour by way of a delicious deceptive cadence, that Mozart tucked in just prior to the movement’s conclusion.

The approach to Beethoven’s third symphony, without the sage presence of Ax at the piano, was strikingly less disciplined. The great “Eroica,” also in E flat major, is a zenith of the literature, but while familiar to many audiences, it can still surprise. Understandably, conductors will find this an opportunity to explore, interpret, and perhaps find fresh insight. This reading of the piece, however, heavily indulged in the Romantic implications of Beethoven’s creation, and veered into mannerism.

Nelsons’s overuse of agogic accents, stretching the silences and hemiola rhythms in Beethoven’s score, led to a loss of momentum in the first movement, and its architecture suffered from a sagging foundation. In the funeral march, a lugubrious beginning failed to pay off in the noble, lamenting climax. Both movements, in mining various tidbits to emphasize, seemed to find us gazing under the hood of a vehicle to examine the underpinnings, instead of taking it for a ride.

Thankfully, the scherzo had rhythmic drive, but the texture in relentless staccatos handed between strings and winds was watery. One wondered if the acoustics in Carnegie Hall differ from Boston’s Symphony Hall in a way that contributed to these infelicities of ensemble. But, too frequently the sections of the orchestra did not seem together, leaving many of Beethoven’s punctuation marks in the symphony sloppily drawn.

Nelsons’s spirited energy on the podium makes clear his priority in any given moment, and he has a gifted ability to summon committed entrances and strong phrasing from the players. It is heartening that the orchestra is programming newer music (newer being a relative term in the classical orchestral repertoire) and playing it so rivetingly. The relationship between the BSO and Nelsons seems especially promising, and the Boston Symphony is thriving as a vital artistic presence on the cultural scene.

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Boston Symphony Orchestra in concert at Carnegie Hall on March 1, 2017. Andris Nelsons, Music Director and Conductor. Emanuel Ax, piano.

SCHULLER Seven Studies on Themes of Paul Klee
MOZART Piano Concerto No. 22 in E-flat Major, K. 482
BEETHOVEN Symphony No. 3, “Eroica”


Cover: Andris Nelsons conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall; photo: Richard Termine.


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