Stéphane Denève Makes His Carnegie Debut with the Boston Symphony Orchestra
If Friday night’s concert at Carnegie Hall is any indication, the Boston Symphony is an orchestra in crisis. Although they have only technically been without a music director since James Levine resigned in September due to chronic health concerns, the Boston players have had to do without Levine at the helm for much of his six-year tenure with the group.
For their 2011 residency at Carnegie, Levine pulled out as conductor, leaving managers scrambling to find suitable replacements. Unfortunately, not much has changed in the year since that debacle: the orchestra’s three nights at Carnegie Hall this week were led by three different conductors, with one of those conductors (former New York Philharmonic music director Kurt Masur) pulling out last month, leaving Tanglewood Music Festival Chorus director John Oliver to take the helm for Wednesday night’s performance of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis.
For their final Carnegie program, the orchestra was led by Stéphane Denève—a French conductor who not only had never conducted the BSO before, but was also making his Carnegie Hall debut. Thankfully, the rich timbres often associated with the high-caliber BSO were on full display throughout their program of Ravel, Stravinsky, and Shostakovich. However, Denève served as more of a guiding post than a reliable leader.
In Ravel’s Ma Mere l’Oye, which opened the program, entrances lacked pinpoint accuracy, and the sweeping sense of motion needed to bring Ravel’s glossy score to life was notably absent. The orchestra simply looked like a lost band—perhaps even a bit broken, having gone so long without a music director to corral the talented players and provide artistic vision. After witnessing the miraculous relationship displayed between Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic last month, I couldn’t help but to think of how long a leaderless orchestra can ultimately keep their musical composure.
Luckily for the audience, both Denève and the BSO blossomed in their presentation of Stravinsky’s Concerto for Piano and Winds, a neo-classical work that showed the strength of the orchestra’s winds and brass. Soloist Peter Serkin was in top form, giving a cool and even-tempered account of Stravinsky’s highly contrapuntal score. Against Serkin’s precise playing, the wind soloists were given the room to shine, with principal horn James Sommerville’s rich tone leading the brass section’s account of the first movement’s funereal chorales. As the piece became increasingly capricious and jazzy, the orchestra’s winds continued to show great contrast, culminating in a raucous moment for the trombone section.
Given the popularity of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, the BSO could probably give a stirring account with their eyes closed. Denève did show an adept sense of pacing at times, especially in the first movement’s rise from a shadowy and haunted opening to the bombastic and thrilling martial music. The orchestra’s dark, rich string section took over in the third movement’s Largo, the strings filling the hall with beautifully voiced eight-part harmonies before retreating into tremolo shimmers to accompany elegant and emotional solos from principal flute Elizabeth Rowe and principal oboe John Ferrillo.
However, as the final movement’s progression from minor-key darkness gave way to major-key rebirth, one couldn’t help but think of the finale as anticlimactic. Rather than exalting with the orchestra as it reached its cinematic peak, Denève seemed to be holding them back and not giving the players the final boost of energy needed for such a conclusion. No one can fault the players: they had no relationship with the man on the podium. Similarly, no one can fault Denève, as he hasn’t had the opportunity to win the orchestra’s trust.
Either way, the Boston Symphony’s administration needs to send out a global red alert and get this orchestra a permanent music director as soon as possible. It’s simply what these world-class players deserve.