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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.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Concert Review: Happiness is the Road

The Boston Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The most happy fella: Andris Nelsons.
Photo © 2014 Boston Symphony Orchestra.
The Boston Symphony Orchestra returned to Carnegie Hall on Tuesday night, opening a three concert stand under the baton of their vibrant nnew music director Andris Nelsons. Tuesday’s program featured new music from composer Sebastian Currier and then this orchestra’s strength: square-shouldered and unpretentious performances of Beethoven and Brahms.

The concert opened with Mr. Currier’s Divisions, composed as a co-commission by the BSO and Seattle Symphon and premiered last year by the latter orchestra. This was a work written as a reflection on the mechanized carnage of the First World War. Mr. Currier workedfrom tiny and repeatedly divided note values, creating slow, marching waves of sound. The cuilination of the piece was a simple set of variations, with the misocal ideas growing from the opening kernel of just a few short notes.

The next work was the Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 3 played by Lars Vogt, who replaed an indisposed Paul Lewis. Mr. Nelsons led the opening with bright colors and sturdy polaying from the low strings. At his entry, Mr. Vogt brought a bold and stylish approach to this familiar music, playing the main theme and its accompanying decorations with surety and ease. This was a warm collaboration toward a common goal, of incorporating the piano as part of the orchestra in this large-scale first movement.

Mr. Vogt played the hymn-like opening of the slow movement with special reverence, joined in his reverie by Mr. Nelsons and the orchestra. Tempos were very slow here, bringing out detail and nuance in the orchestration and allowing Mr. Vogt to show his lyric side. The final movement was merry and mournful at the same time, with the piano answered by woodwinds and eventually the full force of the orchestra. Mr. Vogt made the cadenzas particularly exciting, matched turn for turn by Mr. Nelsons’ baton.

Brahms’ Symphony No. 2 is viewed as a sunny sequel to the stormy First, written quickly during a working vacation in 1877. However, Mr. Nelsons took a different view, offering an intense and psychologiucally probing performance tha captured the leaven of angst underneath the work’s bucolic surface. This was apparent from the opening bars for cellos and horns, which sounded as if they started in mid-phrase.

After establishing the initial material of the movement, the cellos took the lead in the famous second subject, and Mr. Nelsons carefully crafted the conflict over a leisurely span, driving the orchestra with a sure hand. He made the big climaxes surge with rude power, shining new light on Brahms’ inner craftsmanship and keeping the energy flowing between sections of the orchestra through the development and impressive recap. The coda, with it melancholy new theme was especially satisfying.

The slow movement was a full dive into Brahms’ gloomiest thoughts, an introspective reading anchored once more by the cellos and basses. Mr. Nelsons managed the transitions from the orchestra’s depths to its heights and back down again in a contiguous and consistent way, stirring the mix with his baton when needed but also trusting his players. The charming Allegretto Gracioso had the sun peep out at last, with crack woodwind playing and a rough-and-tumble trio section that burst with rude vitality.

The final Allegro con spirito is one of Brahms’ iunique innovations: a movement that relies on loud-soft dynamics to catch the listener off-guard. Here, Mr. Nelsons gave the impression that his assembled unit was in fact two orchestra,s with the muted opening sounding very far away indeed. The full charge of the orchestra was taut, thrilling and electric, capped by the final sonorous word from the trombones. Yes, this work ends in a happy, even triumphant state. It’s just that Mr. Nelsons showed the listener just how hard it was for Brahms to get there.

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