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Friday, November 29, 2013

Concert Review: The Leftovers

The Boston Symphony Orchestra serves up Beethoven and Brahms.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Door busters: Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos (left) and Peter Serkin serve up Beethoven and Brahms.
Photo by Sam Brewer © 2013 Boston Symphony Orchestra.
Black Friday is a weird tradition. Since the 1960s, American consumers gathered at the malls and "big box" stores on the day after Thanksgiving for so-called "door-buster" deals. All this consumerism an have injurious, or even fatal consequences. But for the Boston Symphony Orchestra and its audience, today was just another Friday matinee at Symphony Hall, a civilized pause for high culture in the middle of all the holiday hype.

The program for this week's concert featured a crowd-pleasing pairing of Brahms (the Piano Concerto No. 2 with soloist Peter Serkin) and the Beethoven Seventh Symphony. With the sturdy conductor Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos on the podium, this looked to be safe serving of holiday fare, sure to please the musically conservative audiences that attend the BSO's Friday concerts.

The Brahms started off with the opening horn-call (sonorous and pleasing to the ear) followed swiftly by the entry of Mr. Serkin's piano. Mr. Frühbeck brought a burnished, glowing sound to the ensemble, sweet to the ear but lacking that last element of dramatic emphasis that makes this long concerto an exciting experience. Mr. Serkin favored dulcet tones from his piano and blending his instrument into the smooth cream of orchestration, and showing flashes of brilliance in the cadenza. The re-entry of the solo horn (signaling the start of the recapitulation) was a thrilling moment.

The Scherzo that followed was somewhat better--at least more vigorous--but still substituting pretty orchestral tone for fire and blood. Mr. Serkin wove in and out of the thick orchestration, working closely with the conductor in the contrasting middle section before returning to the attack in the closing recapitulation. The two movements  that followed felt like anticlimax. It should also be noted that Mr. Serkin took pains in his solo bow to share (deserved) credit with the orchestra, particularly the principal horn and first chair cello--a classy move by this experienced musician.

Conductor and soloist achieved a radiant accord in the slow movement, playing off against the principal cello and spinning one of Brahms' loveliest melodies out at length. The finale was bright, perky and full of energy, resolving the concord between piano and orchestra in an almost academic fashion as the two musical forces joined voices in the work's final bars. It was polished and professional (but not necessarily inspired) playing from these veteran musicians.

In an ideal performance, Beethoven's Seventh should be kinetic and inspired, with the stately introduction leading to a whirl of dance rhythms that permeate all four movements of the symphony. Despite some flashes of orchestral brilliance (particularly from the timpani and principal oboe), the opening movement was plagued throughout by unfocused ensemble playing, with the colors of the instruments bleeding together in an unsatisfying way. More seriously, the horns, so often strong in this orchestra, played with inconsistent, watery tone. Although there were moments of real beauty and even profundity, the constant worry that a horn would drop out played havoc with the whole performance.

Some of the cause here may have come from the podium. The scoreless Mr. Frühbeck appeared to lead without much clarity or any sense of a beat. He wiggled, waggled and wavered the long white stick, while the orchestra plowed forward, clearly following the bow of the concertmaster as trained musicians will do. The famed Adagietto with its obsessive, consistent rhythmic pulse did not make its customary dramatic impact. The exuberant dance movements that followed never achieved liftoff. When the final movement came to its end, the audience applauded enthusiastically. Perhaps they were relieved to not be at the mall.

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