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Sunday, March 11, 2012

Concert Review: La Nouvelle Baton

Stéphane Denève leads the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
Not James Levine: Conductor Stéphane Denève.
Photo by Drew Farrell © 2011 IMG Artists.
On Friday night at Carnegie Hall, the venerable Boston Symphony Orchestra were led by a stockily built conductor with glasses and a great mass of frizzy hair.

No, it wasn't James Levine.

The conductor was Stéphane Denève, a French maestro who is among the parade of fine conductors that this orchestra has assembled following Mr. Levine's 2011 decision to step down as the BSO's music director. He is currently the head of the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra. This concert marked Mr. Denève's Carnegie Hall debut.

The program (originally planned by Mr. Levine) presented a triptych of 20th century compositions. It opened with a  finely detailed account of Maurice Ravel's "Ma Mere L'Oye," a suite based on the children's tales of Mother Goose. The opening pages were played at a snail's pace, stretching the fine web of orchestral fabric into a lucid, gossamer sound.

Mr. Deneve focused on the detail and beauty of Ravel's orchestration, whether getting lost in the woods with Tom Thumb or exploring the courtship of Beauty and the Beast. By placing the basses on stage left, the conductor created a spatial effect between those instruments and the contrabassoon representing the Beast. The final Magic Garden opened with ethereal sounds in the strings and wind before rising to its climax on a mighty swell of sound.

The violins, violas and cellos left the stage for the Concerto for Piano and Winds, featuring soloist Peter Serkin. Mr. Serkin is a skilled interpreter of this music, and has been playing Stravinsky concertos with some regularity this season. Here, his steel-fingered approach to the music locked in with Mr. Deneve's conducting to create a tense, terse performance.

The energy of the Stravinsky piece carried into this performance of the Fifth Symphony by Dmitri Shostakovich. This is one of the composer's most enduring and popular works. And it should be: Shostakovich wrote it after an article in Pravda appeared attacking his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. The editorial was written in response to the opera, which had offended Josef Stalin.

The attack article appeared in January of 1936. Shostakovich had just finished his radical three-movement Fourth Symphony and had begun rehearsing the new work. Fearing for his life, the composer locked his new work away (it emerged in 1961) and set to work on the Fifth. The result is a conventional, but potent four-movement symphony on a huge scale: a concert hall favorite that allows a great orchestra to show its quality.

Mr. Denève brought a granite-like weight to the symphony, carving sturdy blocks of sound. In turn, they supported ornate sculptures of woodwind and strings. This is Shostakovich at his most tonal, moving between granite-like chords representing the heroism of the socialist struggle and stark, confessional passages, most notably a long, anguished Largo that allowed the composer to bare his soul for all the world to hear.

Under Mr. Denève, the Boston forces presented a powerful reading of this score, with tight rhythms, burly brass and respect for the complexity of the composer's musical vision. The French conductor was active on the podium, urging the heavy brass passages forward in the early passages and guiding the first violins with a crook of fingers or a "stop" gesture with his left hand. Tempos were leisurely in the slow movement, but the brassy finale had muscle and drive.

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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.