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The Boston Symphony Continues To Be Pulled in All Directions

by Michael Cirigliano II

De Burgos, Boston Symphony, Carnegie Hall, Feast of Music

Photo credit: Hiroyuki Ito, The New York Times

The first two nights of the Boston Symphony’s annual pilgrimage to Carnegie Hall provided a disparate set of results, showcasing just how much of an effect a conductor has on even a top-tier ensemble. Still without a musical conductor since James Levine left his oft-neglected post in 2011, the Boston Symphony has suffered through a roster of guest conductors at Carnegie—both new and familiar faces to the BSO—with plenty of concerning substitutions made at the last minute.

The two conductors at the helm this week couldn’t have been more diametrically opposed in how they led the orchestra: Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, definitely in the twilight hours of his career and remained seated throughout the performance, gave a stoic rendition of three 20th-century works, while Daniele Gatti—fresh from leading the critically acclaimed new production of Parsifal at the Metropolitan Opera—imbued a fresh and precise perspective to Mahler’s titanic Third Symphony.

For Wednesday night’s program, the BSO delivered two works that the group originally premiered, harkening back to the orchestra’s heyday under Serge Koussevitsky, whose deep-seeded relationships with the major composition figures of the time yielded an incredible output of new music. Unfortunately, under de Burgos, both Hindemith’s Konzertmusik for Strings and Brass, as well as Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra suffered, with a lack of energy, precise articulation, and unified sound weaving its way throughout the evening.

The Hindemith found the large string section fighting for cohesive intonation, and the first violin section had plenty of cringe-worth moments that rang through the hall. Not until the first movement’s sweeping, unison melody across the five string sections did the orchestra display the dark, burnished sound quality that one associates with the group.

Luckily, the brass and solo winds were able to pick up the slack in the Bartók—most notably in the second movement’s capricious “Giuoco delle coppie,” where whimsical woodwind duets gave way to a meditative chorale from the brass that was not only perfectly paced, but elegantly pitched. The stellar music-making didn’t last for long though, as the elegiac third movement and adrenaline-pumping final two movements hit a wall, with de Burgos’ choice of tempi failing to show the virtuosity of the onstage musicians’ abilities.

Gatti, Boston Symphony, Carnegie Hall, Feast of Music

Photo credit: The Classical Review

Conversely, Gatti was dynamic in conveying a set of innovative and aggressive ideas that made even the most long-winded passages of the Mahler seem fresh and rewarding. The lengthy first movement—usually hinging on the brash and martial march—was more about the tempestuous night music of the opening material; each time the sun set and D minor returned, Gatti extracted stormy tremolos from the strings and woodwinds. Principal Trombone Toby Oft was Herculean in his account of the central solo, sounding like a stentorian preacher calling out to his congregation. 

The four brief movements sandwiched between the first and sixth movements’ expansive sound worlds usually come across as frivolous intermezzos, but under Gatti’s direction, even these showed a heightened sense of dramatic power that furthered the work’s momentum. Woodwinds excelled in the third movement, with fluttering trills and avian shrieks adding incredible character, contrasting the pastoral offstage posthorn solo that brought momentary respite to the proceedings. Anne Sofie von Otter gave a moving performance of Nietzche’s “Midnight Song” from Also sprach Zarathustra, and while her lower register didn’t always carry across the large orchestra, her warm and intense sound was perfectly suited to conveying the poem’s shadowy text.

Given Gatti’s expert communication with the orchestra—who, as opposed to the previous night, seemed to comply with his every laser-like baton gesture—and rising stature as a vivid interpreter of the Germanic canon, it would be a bold move of the Boston Symphony administration to see how much blossoming could come of this musical relationship. Unlike the appointment of Levine in 2001, there should be a sweeping push amongst musicians and executives alike to ensure that the next music director have the physical vitality (as well as career longevity) to develop the orchestra into the powerhouse it could be once again.

Daniele Gatti, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Carnegie HallMore pics on the photo page.