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Friday, October 7, 2011

Concert Review: Pinch Hitter Enters Starting Lineup

BSO's Sean Newhouse presents first program at Symphony Hall.
Sean Newhouse leading the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
Photo by Michael J. Lutch © 2011 Boston Symphony Orchestra
The Boston Symphony Orchestra's second program of its 2011 season features conductor Sean Newhouse. This budding American conductor made a splash last February, subbing for an ailing James Levine, conducting a superb Mahler Ninth on two hours' notice. But with Mr. Levine now gone from Boston, Mr. Newhouse (who holds the post of assistant conductor at the BSO) had the opportunity to conduct his first subscription concert at Symphony Hall.

This proved to be a strong evening of orchestral war-horses, led with energy and style. The concert opened with Benjamin Britten's Four Sea Interludes from the opera Peter Grimes--a work originally commissioned in 1946 by Serge Koussevitzky, himself a former BSO music director. Mr. Newhouse offered smooth string tones, a brassy sunrise in Dawn and an idyllic picture of Britten's fishing village in Sunday Morning, complete with gossiping woodwinds.

The idyll yielded to the deceptive calm of Moonlight, which pictures the fisherman Grimes on the edge of panic, literally teetering on the edge of a cliff. The opera's raw emotions burst out in the final, furious Storm, led with great emotion and simultaneous restraint by Mr. Newhouse. The work ended with a moving orchestral elegy for Britten's doomed hero, a sympathetic epitaph for the unsympathetic Grimes.

Serge Prokofiev's Third Piano Concerto is the most popular of the composer's five, an ideal showpiece for the right soloist. Here, it was French pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet. Mr. Bavouzet played the three movements with the right blend of ironic detachment and virtuoso technique. This concerto features some of Prokofiev's most challenging piano figures, driven with folk-like melodies that twist and turn, as the soloist dazzles the listener with raw technique.

In addition to impressive gymnastics (crossing hands in what pianists call the "pretzel trick") Mr. Bavouzet played with an elegant, liquid tone, creating legato transitions not often heard in most interpretations of this composer. The cadenzas were delicately played, with each note precisely in place and the whole flowing smoothly. Mr. Newhouse proved a strong accompanist, handling one tiny orchestral hiccough without missing another beat.

Mr. Newhouse returned to center stage for the Second (and most popular) Symphony of Finnish composer Jean Sibelius. The product of strife and the 20-year struggle for that country's independence, the Second depicts conflict between Finland and neighboring Russia. The first movement depicts the idyllic Finland with the threat of war on the horizon. BSO assistant principal oboist Keisuke Wakao led off the folksy opening figure, answered by chugging strings and a majestic brass chorale.

With its plucked opening, the slow movement is all dread and suspense. Mr. Newhouse led this tricky, episodic Andante with care, creating the aural images of a Russian army on the march and its impending crack-down on the smaller country's dreams of independence. The third movement shows the Finns preparing for war, stocking up supplies and hunkering down as the conflict erupts. It was briskly played, with an elegaic second theme in the bassoons.

Sibelius ended this symphony on an optimistic note with a rising, surging theme led by the brass section that depicts (eventual) victory over the Russians. Mr. Newhouse responded to the material, riding the waves of brass and strings to lift the last pages of this mighty finale into a joyful union with the opening wind oboe theme. This was a statement concert from an important young conductor, whose arrival in Boston may be a key part of James Levine's lasting legacy to the BSO.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.