I couldn’t have been more eager to hear Riccardo Chailly and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra on their return visit to Boston, part of an American tour celebrating the 25th anniversary of the “Peaceful Revolution” that began in Leipzig in October 1989 and a month later led to the fall of the Berlin wall. Chailly continues to be one of most significant and enriching conductors of our time, and it was profoundly frustrating that, in January of 2012, heart problems prevented him from making his long overdue BSO debut (conducting, among other things, Stravinsky’s Sacre du printemps). This cancellation also put him out of the running as a possible replacement for James Levine as BSO music director. There was no way the BSO would risk hiring another music director with health problems. And yet, apparently recovered, here he was in Boston.
Few visiting conductors over the past decades have provided the musical satisfaction Chailly has brought here, with either the Leipzig orchestra or before that with the Concertgebouw of Amsterdam (all under the auspices of the Celebrity Series). I wasn’t excited about Chailly’s programming: a familiar Mendelssohn overture (the Hebrides) and my least favorite Mendelssohn symphony (the ponderous and not-often-played Reformation), part of the Leipzig’s extensive reexamination of works by its most famous director; plus the Beethoven Violin Concerto, with the Danish virtuoso Nikolaj Znaider. Still, I couldn’t wait to hear what Chailly would do with these pieces and to hear what the orchestra sounded like since its last visit here in March 2010.
It didn’t take long to find out. Within seconds of the Hebrides Overture, we were enveloped in a world of mystery and intense anticipation. Chailly, of course, as Mendelssohn would have done, divides the first and second violins antiphonally, so that we can hear the way the two violin sections are engaging in a conversation (an early form of stereo), or forming a kind of halo of sound around the rest of the orchestra. Then he places the cellos in the center of the stage, right in front of him, so that the deepest, richest string sounds well up from the metaphorical heart of the entire ensemble. In the Hebrides Overture, Mendelssohn re-capturing his visit to Scotland’s Fingal’s Cave, it was as if the music were emanating from the cave itself.
The Leipzig, founded in 1743, is the world’s oldest civic orchestra. But look at the players: what a youthful bunch! They play everything with a kind of personal responsibility, as if they were playing chamber music. A violinist friend of mine posted this description on Facebook:
Rhythmic flexibility. The phrases seemed to grow and develop in amazing organic ways, sometimes rising and falling, slowing, quickening, in a way only possible if every person on stage is communicating across sections. The violins were watching the timpani like hawks. The timpani was watching, at times, the violas. Everyone was listening, alert, involved, responding. None of the “no, please, after you” “no, no, please after YOU” stuff I’m used to seeing….
Bowings! So many strange and characterful ones, in every section. Passages which would surely be played tooth-brush style by most ensembles, down-up-down-up, were infused with imagination, up-up-up-up. Opportunities for violent (and risky) repeated down-bows were never avoided when there was a character to be underlined. And pizzicato! OMFG. Not since [Carlos] Kleiber’s New Year’s 1989 have I heard an orchestra play such vibrant and tender, hushed and precise and flexible pizzicatos….
And this didn’t stop with the Overture. In the Beethoven Violin Concerto, each member of the orchestra seemed to be a soloist, with Chailly the story-teller keeping his listeners mesmerized. There were unending felicities: the winds introducing the first movement sounding like a calliope; Znaider’s warmth, calm, flowing simplicity—a steadiness that suggested something heartfelt and emotionally centered; the gorgeous intro of the orchestra in the Larghetto second movement and its profound quietness; the continuous sense of suspense and release in the Rondo finale; the diving board leap into the second theme; the pizzicatos that seemed like hair-trigger springs.
“Tonight we are all from Leipzig,” Znaider told the audience, which wouldn’t let him go without an encore. My violinist friend didn’t care for his rather old-fashioned version of Bach’s d-minor Saraband, but the audience seemed transfixed.
The Reformation Symphony was also full of surprises. It was Mendelssohn’s earlier version, leaner and lighter than the revised version. At one point Mendelssohn called it “Symphony for the Celebration of the Church Reformation,” in part a tribute to Martin Luther, who composed the familiar hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” made even more famous a century later by Bach’s cantata. Chailly delivered the familiar “Dresden Amen,” maybe more familiar from Wagner’s use of it to depict the Holy Grail in Parsifal, as a seraphic pianissimo. I loved the enchanting waltz for winds and pizzicato strings that suddenly appears in the middle of the second movement. The third movement, Andante con moto, sounded like a restrained aria out of Bellini. Once again, Chailly was conducting the whole orchestra, not just sections, and the whole symphony sounded fresh and living.
But the concert wasn’t over yet. We got two encores from Mendelssohn’s greatest score, his music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream—the bewitching “Intermezzo,” with its infinitely charming music for Shakespeare’s stage-struck mechanicals, and the all-too familiar “Wedding March,” though here it was both loving and grand, combining spiritual dignity with pure exhilarating joy. Probably the best performance of this chestnut I’ve ever heard. Chailly and the orchestra made me love it as if I were hearing it for the first time.
Meanwhile, as part of his longest stint in Boston so far, Andris Nelsons, the guy who got the BSO job, conducted three programs, in one of which Stravinsky’s most notorious score was featured. It began with the great bassoon solo—a summons to a ritual? A lament? The awakening of the Earth? It was beautiful, but the answer this time was none of the above. It was just a beautiful piece of bassoon playing. The rest of the performance was equally well played. But nothing happened. Nothing seemed to be about anything. Violent, spiritual, orgiastic, solemn, mysterious, suspenseful—Le sacre du printemps, let’s not forget, was first a ballet, one that changed the world of Western music. And it has a story—about a sacrificial ritual in ancient Russia. But not in this performance. The most sensational piece of 20th-century music was merely well-played. No one lost his or her place in all the complexly syncopated rhythms. Entrances were impeccably together, even when, in music that requires at least three hands to conduct, Nelsons occasionally used only one (the other hand holding onto the railing behind him—a typical stance for him, along with the deep knee crouches, and the forward lunges). But it was dull! Even the cataclysmic “Danse sacrale,” the climactic human sacrifice, was more energetic than ferocious. No one’s life was at stake here. Nelsons passed the test of technique with flying colors, but he failed Stravinsky. As he had in the summer of 2013 when he led a soft-focus Symphony of Psalms at Tanglewood.
As for the rest of the program, Nelson’s merely confirmed the reputation of Tchaikovsky’s Hamlet Overture-Fantasy as one of the composer’s less inspired pieces, and the piece of new music Nelsons brought, Australian Brett Dean’s noisy three-movement trumpet concerto Dramatis Personae (2013), with the Swedish virtuoso (Nelsons himself is a trumpet player), was even thinner, with its last-movement imitation of a cacophonous Ives march.
In his three programs, Nelsons scheduled a lot of 20th-century music. The most important example was Sofia Gubaidulina’s wrenching, apocalyptic Offertorium, which the BSO gave its American premiere with violinist Gidon Kremer in 1988, part of Sarah Caldwell’s monumental Russian Festival “Making Music Together.” Nelsons’s soloist, for the second time at the BSO, was the powerful young Latvian violinist Baiba Skride (who since 2010 has been using Kremer’s magnificent 1734 Stradivarius). Beginning with a quotation from Bach’s Musical Offering, played on the trumpet, which dissolves as the piece progresses, the piece presents an urgent conflict between human suffering and sublime spiritual release. I haven’t found Nelsons’s approach to conducting particularly architectonic, but perhaps his episodic approach jibes with Gubaidulina’s unsettling shifts better than with Stravinsky’s cooler, harder-edged geometry. And Skride played with stunning power and beauty.
Offertorium opened a program that ended with a piece even more thoroughly associated with the BSO, Sibelius’s big Symphony No. 2 (1902), which the orchestra has recorded no less than four times, twice under Serge Koussevitzky. After the concert, a stranger stopped me in the lobby to ask what I thought of Nelsons. I said, “Yes and no.” “What’s the ‘no’?” he asked. When I said the Sibelius, he was surprised. “Why?” I said I found it disjointed. Static. Lacking in momentum and mystery. “You’re absolutely right!” another passing stranger, overhearing this discussion, interjected; “It was terrible!”
The reviews were generally positive. Alex Ross, in The New Yorker, admired a particular effect he thought was missing in the “general excitement” of Koussevitzky’s recording (I think I’d gladly give up one striking effect for the sake of “general excitement”). But David Mermelstein, in the Wall Street Journal, summed up the performance this way: “The Sibelius had all the earmarks of a success—with aching strings, mellow brasses and birdlike woodwinds lending vivid mood to a generally urgent interpretation. But an arcing structure present in the best performances of this symphony never emerged, suggesting that the conductor couldn’t see the Nordic forest for the fir trees.” For me, I missed the roiling and uncoiling of Sibelius’s unpredictable and sometimes eerie changes in direction, the obsessive repetitions, and the haunted atmosphere. At home, when I put on one of the Koussevitzky recordings, I was overwhelmed by its grandeur, the relentlessness of its dark explorations, and its living spirit. A continuum without Nelsons’s frustrating stops-and-starts. “A fine line, Mermelstein wrote, “separates authority from micromanagement on the podium, and Mr. Nelsons sometimes skirts close to the latter.” The BSO is imminently releasing a recording of the Sibelius taken from these live concerts, mostly, I gather, from performances from later in the run than the one I heard. I’m eager to hear it.
Nelson’s third concert consisted entire of 20th- and 21st-century music. In John Harbison’s witty six-minute Choral Scherzo, Koussevitzky Said (2012), getting its first Boston performance, the chorus quotes and polyphonically repeats the never quite idiomatic maestro’s English, mostly notably “The next Beethoven will from Colorado come.” This was followed by the world premiere of Latvian composer Eriks Esenvalds’s Lakes Awake at Dawn, a BSO co-commission with the orchestra Nelson is leaving, the City of Birmingham Symphony. A rather pretty though negligible piece for chorus and orchestra set to sappy nature poems by the Latvian poet Inga Abele and the composer himself.
What made tickets scarce, though, was surely the appearance of Yo-Yo Ma in the first BSO performance since 1987 of Prokofiev’s complex and much-reworked 40-minute Symphony-Concerto for cello and orchestra (first performed in 1954, a year and a half after the composer’s death), dedicated to and most often played by Mstislav Rostropovich. Ma was in stupendously dexterous form. But I found the whole gnarly piece hard to put together and often unattractive (perhaps antiphonal violins might have really helped us hear it better). Even the slow theme in the second movement that the program annotator described as “one of the most seductive Prokofiev ever wrote, a great romantic melody of the sort heard in Romeo and Juliet,” didn’t strike me as especially alluring. I found the performance hard to evaluate other than technically, and I’m not convinced the piece actually works. Though despite its inability to seduce, it was certainly filled with all sorts of phenomenal fireworks and fascinating puzzlements. Audiences, with justification, love Ma, our home-town superstar. But does he still have a hard time accepting all this love? During the curtain calls, he bent lower and lower to defer to Nelsons, until he ended up sitting himself down on the stage floor.
But it was the last piece that was the concert’s most satisfying event, Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Opus 35, The Bells (1913—same year as Stravinsky’s Sacre, but seeming from an earlier century), in only its second BSO performance. This is a big choral piece, using as a text the Russian poet Konstantin Balmont’s translation of Edgar Allan Poe’s dazzling exercise in onomatopoeia. Despite some blurry diction that made the transliteration hard to follow, John Oliver’s Tanglewood Festival Chorus was more than up to its current high standard. And the three young Eastern European soloists— Czech tenor Pavel Cernoch (singing of Poe’s light and fleet sleigh bells), Russian soprano Victoria Yastrebova (wedding bells), and—especially—the impressive Lithuanian bass-baritone Kostas Smoriginas, whose career seems to be shifting into high gear, in the somber last movement devoted to the funeral bells—more than fulfilled their obligations. (The third movement’s howling alarm bells are for chorus only.) Without having to worry about the inner tension of classical symphonic formalities, and without the need to convey anything as complicated as Stravinsky’s oxymoronic mix of ferocity and cool detachment, Nelsons had in The Bells an ideal piece for his particular talents. Vivid, colorful, exciting, it flew by.
As the ovation was diminishing, Nelsons stopped the applause to greet the audience and the performers, to wish everyone a happy Thanksgiving, and “really wish you all the very best, firstly for your families, and strong health, and everything very exciting in life” and to say he’ll see us in January. Other BSO conductors have rarely spoken to the audience—and even less so about non-musical matters. Imagine Nikisch, Koussevitzky, Leinsdorf, or even Seiji Ozawa being quite so homey. It’s a new generation at the BSO.