The Arts Fuse
By Jonathan Blumhofer
Konzert, Boston, 27. September 2014
Boston Symphony Orchestra/Andris Nelsons — A Substantial Inaugural Outing
At least waiting for Andris Nelsons to take over the orchestra is done. And we don’t have to bide too much time before we get to hear more from him: his first subscription series with the BSO kicks off on Wednesday.
It’s next to impossible not to like Andris Nelsons, the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s (BSO) charismatic new music director. His (usually smiling) visage is plastered on billboards and posters around town; in his many recent interviews he conveys both intelligence, a sense of humor, and humility (not characteristics one can take for granted from all who occupy positions similar to his); and on the podium he exudes youthful vitality. When, about halfway through the second half of his substantial Inaugural Concert on Saturday night at Symphony Hall, he turned to the audience to introduce a surprise encore, it seemed utterly natural. When was the last time a BSO music director addressed a crowd…well, anywhere (let alone during his first concert in the post)? That sound you might have heard then in the Hall were any residual icy hearts melting. Not that there were many to begin with. A new day, with all its risk and promise, seems to be dawning for the BSO.

Nelsons’ opening night program was mostly celebratory in nature, consisting of opera arias and instrumental music by Wagner, Mascagni, and Puccini topped off with Respighi’s gaudy Pines of Rome. If you only get one Inaugural Concert as BSO music director, the approach seemed to be, think big. Nobody in the audience seemed much to mind and, in truth, the grab-bag quality of selections made for a refreshing break from the traditional concert format we’ll be getting plenty of in the months ahead. And, if the line-up of pieces didn’t make much musical sense, no big deal: at the very least it was an excuse to hear a pair of terrific singers in Jonas Kaufmann and Kristine Opolais (who also happens to be Nelsons’ wife), both making their BSO debuts.

Saturday’s concert opened with the Overture to Tannhäuser and, though they don’t play enough of his music, it’s no secret that the BSO is a wonderful Wagner orchestra. Nelsons took advantage of that fact, at least to a point. He got a sound out of the ensemble that was simply beautiful: plush, smooth, and rich, like molten chocolate. What was missing, in the outer Pilgrim’s Hymn, at least, was a sense of natural momentum. In his effort to emphasize the music’s gravitas, Nelsons seems to have resorted to a deliberate pacing that ultimately felt ponderous. The result, rather than ennobling, turned this solemn, famous tune into a kind of stultifying caricature of itself.

The snappy middle section fared somewhat better – Malcolm Lowe delivered a gushing violin solo, among other things – but here, too, the music never quite reached fever pitch. Yes, every phrase, dynamic hairpin, and crescendo were sculpted with loving care. But, perhaps hemmed in by the rigidity of the outer parts (the reprise of the Hymn, after a promising beginning, slogged again), the Overture never quite achieved lift. This was rather surprising, considering the work’s significance to Nelsons (Tannhäuser was the piece that convinced him, at the age of five, to become a musician) and his reputation as a leading Wagner conductor. Perhaps he was just too caught up in the moment.

A bit more successful was the Prelude to Act 1 of Tristan und Isolde. It was fascinating watching Nelsons tease the opening bars out of the air with little, wispy hand gestures. And, especially in the pensive opening section, there was a real sense of sensuous drama about to unfold. But as the music built to its climax, it felt rushed, its volcanic passions never fully tapped. The playing, again, was creamy and luxurious, but something went missing.

Unfortunately, that something wasn’t to be found in soprano Opolais’ account of the “Liebestod.” She has a beautiful voice, to be sure, with a strong middle range and clarion high notes. But, like most thirty-four-year-olds, she’s not yet ready to sing Wagner.

Her “Liebestod” did at least began well, with concentrated expression. But it wasn’t long before the intensity faded and the orchestra started to regularly cover her, even in her upper register. Nelsons made a strong effort to balance things but this had the net effect of thwarting Wagner’s magnificent orchestration. In five or ten years, when her voice darkens and further matures, Opolais may truly own this aria. I sincerely hope she does. But on Saturday she didn’t.

She fared better in the concert’s second half, which, for her, was devoted to music by Puccini, a composer whose vocal writing better fits her present instrument. Her account of “Un bel di” (from Madame Butterfly) was sung with sweet pathos and was followed by a fervent, if restrained, “Tu, tu, amore? Tu?” (from Manon Lescaut), the latter a duet with Kaufmann.

After a brief pause, both singers and conductor returned for the encore, “O soave fanciulla,” from La Bohème. They sang it beautifully and the orchestra responded with some of its most intense, hushed playing of the night. Maybe in a coming season we can get these two back for a complete Bohème – that’d be something not to miss.

For his first half solo, Kaufmann almost upstaged Nelsons with a magnetic performance of “In fernem Land” from Lohengrin. The shades of his voice, from the haunting, opening bars to the great climax, were captivating in their focus, strength, and intensity. Never was there a question of his being able to carry over the big orchestra. Perhaps in another future season we could get Kaufmann back for a complete Lohengrin – that could be downright mesmeric.

Throughout, Nelsons delivered an accompaniment that captured, in daring strokes, Wagner’s striking command of orchestral color, especially the opening and closing chords of string harmonics. For the first time in the evening, there was a real sense of just how brilliant a conductor he can be.

This feeling continued, right after intermission, with Nelsons and Kaufmann dispatching a blistering performance of “Mamma, quel vino è generoso” from Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana. In this repertoire, Kaufmann can simply do no wrong, so powerfully does he inhabit the music. And Nelsons was again with him every step of the way, delivering a fiery accompaniment.

There were two instrumental pieces on the concert’s second half. The first, the famous “Intermezzo” from Cavalleria Rusticana, was heard between the Puccini selections. In it, Nelsons did what he didn’t do in Wagner: he let the music simply speak. The outcome was pure, unaffected magic, sweepingly lyrical but never descending into bathos or kitsch.

To the cynical, Respighi’s Pines of Rome might be little more than bathos or kitsch. It certainly isn’t the deepest music ever written. But it’s very well composed and lots of fun to hear live. Plus, for sheer bombast and spectacle, you can hardly do better than it and Nelsons seems to know that.

Saturday’s reading began a bit intentionally, but, by the middle movements, relaxed into something quite evocative and pleasing. Its many soloists – among them, principal cello Jules Eskin, English horn player Robert Sheena, principal clarinet William Hudgins, and principal trumpet Thomas Rolfs – made the most of their moments in the sun. So, too, did the expanded brass and percussion sections (the former included six trumpets in the balconies).

If the latter obliterated the strings in the final movement (“Pines of the Appian Way”) – and they did – it was, again, not too big a deal. Pines of Rome is, ultimately, a kind of thrilling, primal music, well suited to big occasions, and nothing stands in the way of that inexorable last crescendo. Certainly not a full string section playing fortissimo.

Nothing, either, got in the way of the enormous ovation that followed. Yes, it seems that Nelsons has largely won over the BSO’s regular public. That’s good. Here’s to hoping he can do the same with the orchestra’s untapped audience: students; young professionals; and others who have, for various reasons, stayed away in seasons past. Now the hard work of realizing all the potential of his appointment can begin.

At least waiting for Nelsons to take over the orchestra is done. And we don’t have to bide too much time before we get to hear more from him: his first subscription series with the BSO kicks off on Wednesday. It consists of music by Beethoven, Bartók, and Tchaikovsky – hardly groundbreaking stuff, but there are worse places to start. Stay tuned.

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