Entertainment » Music

Boston Symphony Opens Season with Exhilarating Concert

by Robert Nesti
EDGE National Arts & Entertainment Editor
Tuesday Sep 24, 2019
Nicole Cabell, Andris Nelsons and the BSO on Thursday, September 19 at Boston's Symphony Hall.
Nicole Cabell, Andris Nelsons and the BSO on Thursday, September 19 at Boston's Symphony Hall.  (Source:Winslow Townson)

There was an extraordinary array of forces brought together for the opening program of the Boston Symphony Orchestra's season this past Thursday night in Symphony Hall: an oversized orchestra, seven vocal soloists, a mixed chorus, and two pianists playing two Steinways placed back-to-back at the front of the stage. Usually such forces are brought together for some single work, say a Mahler symphony or an Elgar choral work, but part of what made this concert so extraordinary was its eclectic programming — four relatively unknown works — each splendidly played by these forces under the authoritative command of musical director Andris Nelsons.

It couldn't have gotten off to a more exhilarating start than with the appearance of those Steinways played by the fraternal duo Lucas and Arthur Jussen. The lithe, blonde Millennials, who looked as if they were still studying at one of the local music schools in the area, charmed the audience with their affable boyishness even before they played a note. They played the Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra by Francois Poulenc, a delightful, if little-known work rich in melody and humor, with synchronized exuberance. Hearing two pianos playing in unison was an unusual treat and Mr. Nelsons balanced the shimmering piano parts (including a lovely, Mozart-inspired second movement) with the often booming orchestral parts.

Take away one of the pianos and add six vocal soloists and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus for the second work — Beethoven's "Choral Fantasy." Often thought of a dress rehearsal for the Ninth Symphony, it is a joyous theme and variations that begins gently with the piano (played by the returning Arthur Jussen), followed by the orchestra and, in the concluding variations, with the soloists and chorus. It was a rousing performance marked by the playing of Jussen, who brought out the lyricism of this prodigious piano part, usually played with much more drama.

The program's second half was more subdued, but no less remarkable. The evening's premiere was Eric Nathan's "Concerto for Orchestra," an 18-minute celebration of the aural splendor of the orchestra. His riveting score offers cascading soundscapes that highlighted the orchestra's sections, much like the famous Bartok work that shares its name (which was commissioned also by the BSO.) The work broods, then pulses with orchestral climaxes in the fast-moving central section, at one point even bringing to mind the dramatic music Bernard Herrmann wrote for the film "North by Northwest," which Mr. Nelsons conducted with care and affection.

Poulenc returned for the final work — his "Gloria" for chorus and orchestra. An example of the composer's later works, when he turned to more serious, liturgical themes, it never seemed weighty; instead it contained a lightness that buoyed its religious underpinnings, especially in its first two movements. It has been little-played by the orchestra (the last Symphony Hall performance was in 1987), despite a strong connection: it was commissioned the Koussevitzky Foundation in 1961. The orchestra was joined by the Tanglewood Festival Chorus (in fine form) and the supple solos of soprano Nicole Cabell in a rich, detailed reading that underscored the concert's celebration of little known scores that require large forces in performance.

For more information on upcoming concerts by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, visit the orchestra's website.

Robert Nesti can be reached at [email protected].


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