Tonight the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO) performed the first in series of concerts for their current program, led by assistant conductor Julian Kuerti and featuring Gyorgy Ligeti’s Concert Românesc, Dmitri Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in Cm, and Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 2 in Cm. I’ve often noticed that performances tend to evolve over the course of multiple concerts in a program; by the final performance, the musicians seem more relaxed; having performed the music several times in front of a live audience, they have had the chance to work out the details and are together like the moving parts of a clock. In contrast, first performances often show a bit of roughness, and in many ways, tonight was not an exception. Despite this, the group managed to end on a wonderful note, making the Tchaikovsky soar throughout the Hall.
The Ligeti piece was the only one that was new to me, and despite being a mid-20th century composition, it fit in stylistically with the other two selections. In many ways, in fact, it was an incredibly safe program in this regard — there were no real challenges to the audience in this program. For the first time, I appreciated the difficulty in programming a concert; much like a track listing for an album, the selections must complement each other or tell a story of some sort. While I enjoyed all the pieces here, it would have been nice to have either a more complete story (All-Russian, All-Mozart, etc.) or a more diverse offering (modern juxtaposed with classical).
For me, the Ligeti explores various themes ranging from something that feels like a western to gypsy music. It’s overall a very fun piece, but it was the first indication that there was some roughness in the performance. For her part, concertmistress Tamara Smirnova performed to task on the many difficult solos, though one or two moments appeared to be tricky as well. For the entire orchestra’s part, there seemed to be a general lack of organization, including some early entrances and rhythmic confusion. It’s not completely clear if it’s my unfamiliarity with the piece or an actual problem, but something was amiss in a few sections.
The Shostakovich was performed by pianist Marc-André Hamelin and BSO principal trumpeter Thomas Rolfs. Specifically, the Lento second movement was expertly performed, with Hamelin coaxing its nuances and subtleties beautifully. The final Allegro con brio movement had elements that reminded me of something of a horse race, and Rolfs throughout was impressive in his sole role as entire brass section. It was an interesting addition by Shostakovich to the full string orchestra, but its role was well employed. To paraphrase Albert Einstein, it seems as if Shostakovich kept it as simple as possible but no simpler. One upside to having a primarily string orchestra was the expanded role of the violas that I appreciated. Alexander Velinzon led the first violins for this piece and appeared to do a fine job of it, once again. The piece finished to a rather tepid applause, and I think for the first time the conductor was only called out twice.
Finally, the piece I had been most eager to hear was the Tchaikovsky. This particular piece is one of my favorites, and to hear the BSO perform it live was absolutely charming. While I have minor quibbles with some of the interpretations, such as the use of vibrato in certain long, sustained notes from the winds (though in other places it was perfect), by and large this was an emotionally complete piece for me. It’s not particularly moody, but it has a strong rhythmic power that showcased the excellent percussive capabilities of the orchestra. Tchaikovsky demonstrated again in this piece many sequences and themes that were reminiscent of ballet music. In the second movement, the Andantino marziale quasi moderato, the main theme is reminiscent of a carefree person, perhaps a peasant or even a soldier in a moment of relaxation, wandering about his day. The Scherzo is short and filled with action, but the Finale was a spectacle tonight — what power!
I’ve maintained perhaps forever that the BSO are at the height of their excellence when they are playing grand symphonic works, and tonight gave me yet another indication of that. The Tchaikovsky was so well done: pretty when he wrote it to be so and likewise fiery and everything in between. It’s unfortunate that I do not think that tonight’s audience got a strong sense of that. For me the Tchaikovsky was its best showing by far on tonight’s occasion, but I appeared to have been a minority in that assessment. I suspect that the program will get more popular as the performances get tighter in the coming concerts.
On a personal note, my concert neighbors down in row K of the orchestra were two older gentlemen, one of whom grew up in Symphony Hall, as his mother and sister were apparently opera singers who had performed right on this stage. Additionally, Ms Smirnova seems to be very friendly, as she returned my impromptu greeting pre-concert outside the Hall.