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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Concert Review: The Out-of-Towner

Alan Gilbert conducts the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
(Yes, you read that right!)
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Alan Gilbert conducts the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
Photo by Stu Rosner © 2013 Boston Symphony Orchestra.
Holding the position of Music Director at one of North America's "Big Five" orchestras is a time-consuming business. So it is rare to hear Alan Gilbert, who currently reigns at the New York Philharmonic, conduct an orchestra other than his own. When that "other" orchestra is the prestigious Boston Symphony Orchestra, that opportunity becomes an extraordinary one.

On Friday afternoon at Symphony Hall, Mr. Gilbert offered a potent mix of comparative 20th century rarities with stolid favorites. He started with the most radical work on the program: Henri Dutilleux' four-movement Métaboles. Dutilleux writes spidery music, subtle yet capable of great impact on the listener. This work consists of four  connected movements, each building on the chords and key signatures of the one before to create an organic structure of sound.

Although the score of Métaboles employs enormous orchestral resources, its utterances are often cryptic. A stentorian, short theme is blared. In its wake, one hears the keening buzz of a violin or viola answered by taps of percussion, a blurted note from the heavy brass. This intricate work was played lovingly by the Boston forces, who clearly enjoyed meeting the challenges of the score under Mr. Gilbert's precise leadership.

On the advice of her doctor, violinist Lisa Batiashvili was unable to travel to Boston for these concerts. Julian Rachlin proved a more than able substitute. It only helped matters that Mr. Rachlin was playing Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto, a work that overcame the composer's initial doubts to become one of his most popular and enduring creations.

Mr. Gilbert supported Mr. Rachlin with slow tempos that allowed the soloist room to expand in the opening soliloquy, drawing a raw, emotional performance from his instrument. Violinist and conductor maintained a thrilling narrative through Tchaikovsky's long musical arc. (They received a full, and deserved ovation after the first movement.) The central Canzonetta featured a warmer, lyric tone from Mr. Rachlin. In the athletic final movement, the soloist indulged in considerable agility backed by Mr. Gilbert's propulsive rhythmic accompaniment.

The second half of the program featured works anchored by the idea of dance rhythms. It opened with Igor Stravinsky's Symphony in Three Movements, a work inspired by the atrocities of World War II. Mr. Gilbert was at home in this music, bringing punch to the complicated "rhumba" rhythms that open the first movement and contain the thematic seeds of what follows. The central Interlude allowed the low woodwinds to dominate, and the final movements raged in a manner recalling the composer's earlier (and better known) Rite of Spring.

The program concluded with Ravel's one-movement La Valse. Due to its short length and flashy instrumentation, this tone poem functioned as a kind of encore for Mr. Gilbert. The New York conductor made the most of this piece, leading the triple rhythm with a sure baton and rhythmic snap. He steered the ensemble through the ebb and flow of the music, producing a cumulative effect that thrilled the audience at the final fortissimo climax.

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats