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.
As everyone in New England knows, this winter was one long slog. But significant musical events actually got to take place, and some of these have been exceptional. But many have been frustrating and disappointing.
Over the past months chamber music lovers have found a few important changes in their universe, above all the retirement of the Tokyo String Quartet and David Finckel’s departure from the Emerson. Both of these developments made themselves felt in the summer festivals. The Tokyo played their farewell concert at Yale’s Norfolk Chamber Music Festival, where they have been a fixture for years. It was a characteristically unsentimental affair, although one could see that fans had travelled considerable distances to fill the Norfolk Music Shed on that stifling summer evening. The Emerson played at Tanglewood with their superb new cellist, the distinguished soloist and conductor, Paul Watkins, and David Finckel appeared at the South Mountain Concerts with his wife Wu Han and violinist Philip Setzer of the Emerson, marking his even busier schedule as a member of a duo and trio. Listen to my interview with David Finckel and Wu Han for a full account of the changes in his life.
The Boston Symphony Orchestra is up and running and sounding very good after its holiday time off. New York Philharmonic music director Alan Gilbert opened the winter season with a concert series beginning January 10th. Best of all was the opening work, Henri Dutilleux’s Métaboles of 1965, a piece in five movements played without pause for large orchestra, with much brass and percussion, harp and celesta. The piece is listenable and attractive, rich and serious, and full of musical wit. It asks and rewards an audience’s focus and concentration, which came about well on this occasion. The presentation made a case for what has often occurred to me, that challenging or relatively new work often goes over best when placed first on a program — people tend to be fresh and attentive and open. Métaboles proceeds by constant change and transformation of basic material, and one finds oneself every few minutes, taken unawares, as it were, in quite new territory — a new realm of orchestral color, of breadth of phrase, of rhythm — all of which has grown seamlessly out of what proceeded. The music sounds at moments like Messiaen or Stravinsky, but moves with the mercurial quality of Elliott Carter, or Mozart. Gilbert and the orchestra put the work across with freshness and commitment.