The current subscription performance concert going on at the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO) features our new assistant conductor Marcelo Lehninger at the helm for his first of hopefully many engagements. To get my effusive praise of Mr Lehninger out of the way, I think that he’s an excellent addition to the BSO and brings a lot of energy to the podium. He led the BSO in a concert featuring Samuel Barber’s Overture to The School for a Scandal, Ludwig van Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, and Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5. Being a great admirer of the Romantic period, I was giddy with the possibility of hearing the Beethoven and Tchaikovsky performed live by the BSO. This excitement only escalated after attending the Wednesday night rehearsal the previous evening. Tonight, I was accompanied by my trusted symphony friend CB as we sat in excellent center second balcony seats.
What I was not at all familiar with was Barber’s Overture to The School for a Scandal. This piece fit in naturally with the remainder of the program. Barber spends time developing themes and reintroduces them, and in this work, he creates a groundswell of emotion that continually builds and can easily be attributable to some kind of movie action chase scene. I think there are probably superheroes involved. The main melody is quite beautiful and provides moments of tranquility between the action. It finishes in a spectacular way as well, as it rings out, repeats a chord, and instead of either sustaining that chord or even raising in pitch, it descends down in somewhat of a surprise. This gives me the impression that, while grandiose, it’s not necessarily a happy ending to whatever narrative was told here. I’ll be interested to read more about the piece when I can, but I highly recommend it. It’s always satisfying when the piece I know least about turns out to be the one I appreciate greatly.
For the Beethoven, violinist Pinchas Zukerman joined the BSO, and to have a giant of music on stage was, once again, a treat. The cadenza is worth noting once again, as it was every bit as spectacular as I had experienced just the night before, and I really would like to learn more about who penned it and under what circumstances. It’s quite a unique feature of classical music that the cadenza can strongly flavor the concerto, leave the unique signature of a modern performer, and still respect the original composition. If not so daunting, it makes me want to learn carefully the cadenza variations of some of my favorite violin concertos to be able to distinguish differences in interpretation and writing in these sections.
The Beethoven is quite long, with the first movement alone approaching 25 minutes in some performances. But one thing I noticed tonight about Beethoven is that he takes a musical fragment or idea and then explores it fully, breaking it apart and piecing it back together again, handing off the melody to different instruments and reworking the entire music around it. It means that multiple performances of the piece are continually rewarding, in that one discovers turns of the central themes that are explored in new ways. It’s another example of Beethoven’s genius to have been able to understand this immediately.
Finally, Tchaikovsky is another of my favorite composers, and perhaps my favorite symphonist, so Symphony No. 5 was a treat. Not to diminish his abilities, but he was among other things an excellent song writer. The piece is approximately 50 minutes long, but I find it endlessly engaging. There’s a suspense that builds gradually, and Tchaikovsky is a master at utilizing different instruments as different voices in his symphonic narrative. From the first, détaché notes of the clarinet, the melody exists somewhat but not quite alone. Soon they are accompanied by the bassoons, taking their time and ending on a muted, unceremonious end. A moment of silence passes until the instruments reappear, to finally give way to the slightly brighter strings. Great restraint is built up slowly and beautifully here and punctuated by brief moments of gaiety.
The theme introduced in the Andante cantabile by the horns is longing and hopeful, an introduction to a movement that moves me every time I hear it. The gracefulness of the third movement waltz unsurprisingly harkens to a ballet. In the last movement, the strings take the lead in the grandiose theme of the final movement that eventually gets usurped by the horns before being returned. There’s a march-like quality in the percussion that culminates in a drum roll before the triumphant ending. The entire piece is marked by fluidity and seems to have a particularly identifiable character.
I appreciated the tight programming of this concert. I’m fine with this especially since I learned about the Barber, my asterisk piece for the evening. I greatly enjoyed hearing for the first time live a great violinist in Zukerman perform Beethoven, the BSO doing what they do best during the Tchaikovsky, and the new (to me) Barber which excites me to further explore his music.