Sunday, November 29, 2009

Boston Symphony - Yan Pascal Tortelia, conductor; Joshua Bell, violin. November 28, 2009.

Symphony Hall, Second Balcony Center (Seat E32, $57.50).

Prelude to The Afternoon of a Faun (1894) by Claude Debussy (1862-1918).
Ballet Suite from The Firebird (1945 version) by Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971).
Violin Concerto in D, Opus 77 (1878-1879) by Johannes Brahms (1833-1897).

[Note: I am jotting down my thoughts on the concert now, and will add in more information about the program later. Done 12/3/2009.]

Anne & I were made aware of this concerto by Joe who attended it on Tuesday together with Jessica and her family. Turns out we didn't have much to do during this Thanksgiving trip anyway, and there were still some tickets that were reasonably priced.

This is the first "real" concert we attended at Symphony Hall (I recall seeing the Boston Pops and the Von Trapp Singers). The main floor was configured in a traditional way (rows of seats). Although the auditorium looked small, I estimated it could still hold close to 3000 people, and attendance tonight was very good.

We were able to find street parking with enough time left on the meter until 8 pm (beginning of concert). Be thankful of small things: in this case it saved us considerable time looking for parking and $12.

The conductor was a last minute stand-in for Sir Andrew Davis (who apparently isn't related to the other famous British conductor Sir Colin Davis). I had never heard of him. He must be over 60 and conducted quite energetically, without a baton. He didn't need the music for the Debussy and Stravinsky pieces, but needed it for the Brahms. A bit odd considering he is a violinist himself.

The Debussy piece was quite pleasant despite the tentative beginning by the flutist (Elizabeth Rowe). I don't know how to judge a piece like this except it felt soothing. Debussy is in general easy to like, and this is one of his more well-known pieces.

I am still not very familiar with The Firebird Suite. The last time I heard it was in April 2008 with Leonard Slatkin conducting the New York Philharmonic. The version played today supposedly had two movements that were cut out in other versions. In any case, there were twenty or so minutes of rather quiet music followed by a sudden awakening with ensuing (enjoyable) chaos for fifteen or so minutes. Quite a few fell into the trap of thinking the piece ended after the first flourish, only to be embarrassed when they found out others were not applauding. The conductor seemed extremely energetic despite his age, and in general I thought the orchestra responded very well.

The concertmaster didn't show up after the intermission as the orchestra prepared for the Brahms Violin Concerto; the assistant principal sat in "his" chair instead. This is similar to the practice we observe regularly with the New York Philharmonic. Right now my guess is it's done in deference to the soloist, even though I can't imagine why that would be the case.

We heard Joshua Bell about six months ago in New York playing Saint-Saen's Third Violin Concerto; and the Brahms Violin Concerto played by Frank Zimmerman a couple of months ago. I also enjoyed this performance. The Cadenza was written by Bell himself, and it is a showcase of his virtuosity (what else would it be) with a proliferation of harmonics and left-hand pizzicatos. Although I find nothing wrong with the usual Candenza (by Joachim?). The violin sounded weak during the last movement, though. I assume it is a Strad.

After several curtain calls, Bell joked he wasn't going to do Bach. Instead he played a piece based on "Yankee Doodle Dandy." Perhaps appropriate for Boston (at least the Boston of 200 years ago). In any case, reminds me of Zimmerman playing variations on "My Country Tis of Thee." While he seemed to have fun with it, the piece actually is a very difficult technical exercise.

The Firebird Suite (1945 version) consists of (i) Introduction, (ii) Prelude and Dance of the Firebird, (iii) Variations (Firebird); (iv) Pantomime I; (v) Pas de deux: Firebird and Ivan Tsarevich; (vi) Pantomime II; (vii) Scherzo: Dance of the Princesses; (viii) Pantomime III; (ix) Rondo (Khorovod); (x) Infernal Dance; (xi) Lullaby (Firebird); and (xii) Final Hymn. Indeed the "movements" listed here are different from the one I heard before. The three movements of the Violin Concerto are Allegro non troppo, Adagio, and Allegro giocoso, ma non troppo vivace.

Before I went to the concert, Jessica said she had read a review at that had two points: Tortelia didn't work well as the conductor, and the reviewer liked Bell's Cadenza. My immediate reaction was that it was a lazy review given what I knew. Of course one would expect some miscues, especially if the conductor is the "leading the beat" type (and turns out Tortelia is), and the Cadenza being unusal would make it easy to make intelligent remarks about it. Also, an orchestra like the BSO can do quite well without a conductor, and it certainly would not suffer much because of unfamiliarlity with the guest. I think that assessment is by-and-large correct. It was a light-weight review.

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