Writing here recently about last season at the Boston Symphony, I had recourse more than once to the phrase “just notes going by” in response to Andris-Nelsons-led performances that I did not like (I did praise a number of performances as well). I am happy to say that I think no one would say “just notes going by” about the recent, September 28th concert which opened the orchestra’s subscription series for 2017-2018. First, Nelsons and the orchestra and soloist Paul Lewis presented a definite view of the Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 4 in G-major, Opus 58; they had something to say with it. And the large Shostakovich Symphony No. 11 (“The Year 1905”) which followed, seemed to come into its own and express itself as fully as one could imagine.
Gil Shaham’s double appearance at Tanglewood made a powerful statement: that he was the master of both ends of the spectrum of virtuosity, with the implication that every other challenge would fall somewhere in between. On the one hand, there was a visceral, mercurial, spontaneous and totally commanding performance of the Tchaikovsky concerto, a work whose technical challenges are so great that it was supposed to have been declared unplayable by its intended first performer.
According to the song, “love and marriage go together like a horse and carriage,” and the same ought to apply to orchestras and conductors. When they do, the results are like love, but when they don’t, it’s a relief when the partnership dissolves. Two concerts at Tanglewood with two very different orchestras and conductors illustrated this dramatically. The orchestras in question were the venerable Boston Symphony working its way through another intense summer of three programs per weekend, and the extremely youthful (ages 16-18) National Youth Orchestra which first assembled this month, at the start of a nation-wide tour. The conductors were the Austrian Manfred Honeck, currently director in Pittsburg, and the American David Robertson, Music Director in both St. Louis and Sydney.
The buddy system. Last night’s Prom was as close to an all-smiles evening as one could hope for with rain pouring down all day. David Robertson, although known as a champion of contemporary music, programmed two easy pieces, the Barber Violin Concerto, which is about as challenging as a box of caramels (very delicious caramels) and the Sibelius Second Symphony, a sure-fire hit in Nordic-friendly Britain. There are so many stories of promising American conductors who falter in middle age (Robertson turned 52 last month) that I was eager to hear him a second time. The first was with the Boston Symphony some years ago. Before I register my impressions, however, there’s a spic-and-span back story to his career — apparently this man has left behind him a trail of good will wherever he goes. He looks fit and friendly, with flat gray hair and the long face of a Yankee banker sitting for a Copley portrait. Born and raised in Malibu — not an arduous beginning, one assumes — Robertson was educated at the Royal Academy of Music. This tie to London glided into becoming the chief guest conductor of the BBC Symphony, which he presided over last night with happy faces all around. Robertson even entered the thorny patch that is the Ensemble Intercomtemporain in Paris and was cheered on despite having no ties to its founder, the formidable Pierre Boulez. Robertson preferred to conduct John Adams instead, and he got away with it.