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Saturday, November 26, 2011

Concert Review: Who Needs Black Friday?

Ludovic Morolt conducts Harbison's Fourth, Mahler's First.
Composer John Harbison.
 Photo by Kathrin Talbot, © 2010 G. Schirmer and Associates.
James Levine vacated the position of Music Director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in March of this year. But this week's program, conducted by his former assistant Ludovic Morlot, is very much a continuation of the programming idea prevalent in his seven-year tenure.

The program, played to a full Symphony Hall on the afternoon after Thanksgiving, opened with the Fourth Symphony by John Harbison. This was part of a two-year BSO initiative, to perform all of Mr. Harbison's extant symphonies by the end of this season. It will conclude in January with the premiere of his Sixth.

The Fourth is a bleak, unsmiling work in five movements. In his thoughtful program notes, the composer describes the work as a five-movement cure for his Gatsby hangover, following that work's mixed reception in 2000. Indeed, the first movement is jazz-inflected and brassy, almost strident until stopping dead against its own momentum. The second is indecisive, the sound of a man  beginning anew.

The third finds the composer emulating the work of Shostakovich with a dour double scherzo, Complicated dance rhythms tumbling over each other in and effort to express themselves. The funereal Threnody that followed was grim, terse effective. The final movement was bold and determined, the sound of a composer finding his groove, and moving on to what should be a brighter, more optimistic future.

Under Mr. Morolt, the Boston Symphony Orchestra played the Harbison work with taut power. They brought the same quality to the second Suite from Maurice Ravel's ballet Daphnis et Chloë. The large ensemble tackled these furious rhythms with glee, playing the closing "Danse generale" with gusto. 

The concert concluded with a Mahler First played with bold strokes. Despite a few balky notes from the bassoons, Mr. Morolt summoned the spirit of spring into Symphony Hall, making Mahler's chorales of offstage trumpets and onstage horns come together in a celebratory manner. 

The reeling, wine-tippling peasants of the second movement lurched groggily in. The joy was visible on the faces of the Boston players as they moved into the elegant trio before returning to Mahler's clod-hopping Ländler rhythms. played the famous funeral march, drawn from the children's rhyme "Frere Jacques" before slipping into Jewish wedding music and letting out some very merry sounds from the eight-man horn section.

Those horns move to their feet in the last pages of the tumultous finale, a treacherous, long movement made more difficult by a tricky repeat that forces the orchestra to reprise the entire main theme in a different, higher key Still, the players stood up to the challenge. Mr. Morlot slowed a little in the middle of this movement, but regained his footing and brought the First in with a blaze of sound and a loud, approving applause. 

With stunning playing like this, who needs a door-busting sale to be truly happy?

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