The Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO) have been on hiatus somewhat, as other groups have been performing at Symphony Hall. They returned this evening to their home field, playing in front of what appeared to be close to a sell-out crowd, and they featured Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos conducting Albéniz, Prokofiev, and Rimsky-Korsakov. Playing the Prokofiev Violin Concerto was Hilary Hahn, the young American woman who is quickly becoming the icon of classical music.
No matter where one grows up, there is a distinct local culture that shapes one’s perspective and experiences. In no way am I Hispanic, but today at a Mexican restaurant, I connected with a song that I had not heard in quite a long time, “Cielito Lindo.” I admit I do not know the Spanish words to the song outside of the refrain, “Aye, aye, aye, aye,” but I know the tune very well, though I cannot recall really why. It gives me a great sense of connection to something, which is pretty odd since I don’t have the slightest clue to what. Nevertheless, I suspect that this connection is related to having heard the song for years and years in Southeast Texas. Now there is absolutely no good reason aside from sweeping generalizations and possible intimations of race bias that would lead me to believe that de Burgos might have been a perfect fit for the Issac Albéniz pieces that the BSO performed this evening. There is a distinct style associated with Spanish classical music that evades proper characterization in words, simply because I am not trained in music theory. But I recognize that quality that is unmistakably Spanish, and no, it’s not the castanets. They performed the Córdoba from Cantos de España, Granada from Suite Española, and El Corpus En Sevilla from Iberia. This is my first listen of all of these pieces, yet that familiar quality reminded me of an arrangement of Corelli’s La Folia variation that my violin teacher had marked as a Spanish Dance. For a long time, I have loved music from many Hispanic cultures, especially Cuban in jazz and Argentine via Fito Paez, and hearing Albéniz reawakened that love once again. Tonight’s music was all passionate, emotional music, and there is great difficulty in projecting whisper quiet tones evenly, and of course it helps that the Symphony Hall is more than up to the task. But principal flutist Elizabeth Rowe handled this elegantly, something that I had noted in these pieces. While there are a lot of recorded piano reductions of these pieces, the full orchestra experience is, once again, unmatched.
The final piece of the evening was the Rimsky-Korsakov Scheherazade Symphonic Suite, Op. 35. This is quite a long piece, though quite beautiful, and I noticed about it a quality that is far more pervasive than I had ever realized: as the sections trade off playing, they often overlap slightly and deliver this continuity of sound that blends together. The seamlessness of this is pretty astonishing to me, as an instrument’s timbre can somehow morph into a momentary richness of multiple voices and then rise up with great clarity into another sound entirely. At times, the piece was slightly jarring in its transitions, but that is certainly a facet of the piece and not of the performance. For their part, this was one of the best performances I’ve heard from the BSO: they acted truly as one voice. Concertmaster Malcolm Lowe had several extended solos, and he has a warmth of tone that is eerily perfect for Symphony Hall. He is a master of bow control, which I’ve noted previously, and he manages I think to coax every last bit of sound out of his violin in what seems to be an effortless manner. It’s a treat to hear him play solos, I must admit, and I secretly wish that we could return at least for a moment to a time when the principals played the solos.
In fact, the American premiere performance of the Prokofiev Violin Concerto No. 1 In D Major, Op. 19, was given by none other than former BSO principal first violinist Richard Burgin in 1925 under the direction of Serge Koussevitzky, according to tonight’s program notes. Tonight, the performance was delivered by Hilary Hahn, who arrived on stage in a bright red dress. In the din of the concert hall, the Exit signs all glowed approvingly above each door. I have heard a fair number of Hilary’s recorded works, and her Brahms Violin Concerto ranks easily among my favorite renditions of that work. In addition, I have always had a strong intuition that her personality, or at least what can be discerned from the few instances I’ve seen her appear publicly, is well suited toward solemn, heartfelt renditions of Bach. Her Bach Violin Partitas rank among my very favorite of those pieces. The music is at the same time joyous and peaceful. While I am familiar with Joshua Bell’s recording of the Prokofiev, I do not know the Prokofiev as well as the Brahms or the Tchaikovsky, the latter of which is finally being recorded by Hilary and due out this year. The structure of the Prokofiev is slightly untraditional though not uncommon, in that it starts off with the slower movement before launching into a Scherzo. Hilary is equally a technical master and emotionally mature player, and this was on display here. At one point, she transitioned so easily from pizzicato to spiccato to legato. It was clean, nearly flawless (only she may be able to find flaw, so let’s allow for that), and what a fireworks demonstration! This piece is intensely difficult, but she was able to usurp the technical demands and tell the story of the music.
Like the rest of the audience, I was graced with something I won’t soon forget, as Hilary proceeded to play an encore that was immediately recognizable as a Bach piece for solo violin. So many qualities were revealed in this choice, though I could well be reading into it. Whereas recent visitor to our stage Joshua Bell had played a fun, virtuosic piece in his Vieuxtemps Souvenir d’Amérique variation, Hilary opted for a slow tempo Bach partita that is difficult but not technically overbearing on the soloist but nevertheless presents plenty of subtleties on which to spend a lifetime. As I said before, I’m quite a fan of her Bach, and I believe she also understands the power of his music that can reach down seemingly into the souls of folks. It’s introspective music of the most beautiful order, in a world filled with hectic noise. It was more than a treat to hear her play Bach — it was perfect.
Though I admit that I did not know exactly which Bach it was, I guessed it was a partita, and at the intermission, I tried desperately to keep the piece fresh in my mind as I thumbed through tracks on my iPod in hopes of finding the correct piece. I started with Hilary’s recording of Bach partitas and went quickly through the movements of No. 2 and quickly dismissed it. I went on to No. 3 with fading fragments of her performance in my mind, which were further masked by the solo violin snippets I had been listening to. However, as I came upon the second movement of No. 3, the Loure, I was immediately convinced that it was the same piece.
I have heard rumors that Hilary stays after concerts to talk with her audience, and tonight’s performance was not an exception to that. Ever gracious, she patiently talked with fans who had formed a line that consisted mostly of children and their parents, which wrapped around the Miller room and ended in front of the gift shop entrance. I was happy to let several others get in line ahead of me, so I would not feel that my simple chat with her was holding up a long line of people apparently busier than I. While many took the opportunity to get CDs and programs signed, I cherished the little talk we had in which she confirmed to me the identity of the Bach. It was easy to agree that our beloved orchestra was amazing and particularly on tonight. I’m happy to confirm all accounts: she’s grounded and wonderfully approachable — thanks to her for her time.
Hilary will be performing with de Burgos and the BSO on Friday, Saturday, and next Tuesday. On opening day of ticket sales for this subscription season, I went out and purchased tickets for Joshua Bell, Yo-Yo Ma, and Hilary, for Saturday night concerts. However, at the time it wasn’t clear to me that Boston University’s transition-year hockey team would have clinched home ice in an unbelievable scenario, so I’ve forfeited my Saturday night tickets, yes in favor of college hockey playoffs, and am forever grateful to the BSO for the opportunity to see the performance tonight. I’ll undoubtedly be in attendance on Tuesday night as well and cannot wait.