James Levine may have been the best thing to have happened to the Boston Symphony in decades, but his serious health problems in recent years have proved frustrating to everyone from audiences to orchestra (and, no doubt, to Levine himself). So it was no great surprise that he cancelled first his March appearances with the orchestra at Carnegie Hall, followed shortly by the announcement that he would step down as music director, effective this September.
But among the advantages of the big leagues are depth and clout: talent in the ranks and the ability to call in international talent to pinch-hit. The March 15 concert went on as planned, with Christian Tezlaff, a longtime artistic collaborator of Levine and a Carnegie Perspectives artist. He was soloist in all three works: Mozart’s Rondo, K373; Harrison Birtwistle’s Violin Concerto (2010); and Bartok’s Violin Concerto. Stepping up to the podium was 30 year-year-old Marcelo Lehninger, Levine’s hand-picked assistant conductor, who also conducted this program in Boston ten days earlier.
There’s a certain resonance to the Brazilian-born Lehninger’s position as pinch hitter: his mentor and first conducting teacher, Eleazar de Carvalho (music director of the St Louis Symphony 1963-68), served as BSO assistant conductor at the same time as Leonard Bernstein, whose career was effectively launched by a last-minute Carnegie Hall save in 1943. Lehninger’s appearance was less dramatic than Bernstein’s, but it was a high-profile showcase for a new talent as well as a very satisfying evening.
Mozart’s youthful Rondo was an appealing introduction to an evening of dense and challenging music; it was short, sweet, and deceptively simple, but its transparency only underscored a shaky start, with conductor and soloist appearing to size each other up, not without a bit of suspicion. Lehninger appeared to have an established rapport with the orchestra that he has described as having the responsiveness of a finely tuned luxury car, and indeed they responded to his light hand. His discrete, elegant movements had a Viennese flavor; with a delicate gesture he would invite the players to complete a phrase. But Tetzlaff and Lehninger seemed to have slightly different concepts of the piece, with distinct tempo differences. The performance was nothing out of the ordinary.
For the new Birtwistle Concerto (premiered in Boston on March 3), all parties dug in for a longer and far more vigorous workout. Dense and subtle, the single 25-minute movement, primarily a series of violin duets with orchestral soloists, develops into orchestral excursions with violin obbligato. It’s a mesmerizing display of sonority. Time and again the timbres and articulations of the solo violin melted into the orchestra, as the ensemble’s soloists and sections echoed and expanded on the register and texture of the violin.
The relatively austere and transparent orchestra writing sets forth an extraordinary range of colors. Percussion writing is subtle yet vivid—as colorful as for any other section. I couldn’t get over how beautifully the piece shows off the orchestra. Yet just as impressive is the giddily difficult solo violin part- just the kind of challenge Tetzlaff thrives on. The BSO and violin world are fortunate that Birtwistle was able to find time in his schedule to complete this commission, first imagined by Levine when he signed on with Boston in 2002.
After intermission, the Bartok showed everyone at his finest. A robust score packed with energy, contrast, and folk tunes, the piece is something of a precursor to the later Concerto for Orchestra, written for the BSO. But on top of that, is a solo part of dizzying difficulty and exhilarating energy.
Tetzlaff doesn’t have the biggest or most plush sound; but the refinement, precision, fire, and musical intelligence he brings to the platform are irreproachable. While he’s been good the few times I’ve heard him in standard repertory, it’s his mastery of more modern repertoire that glues me to my seat. Tetzlaff dashed off the breathtaking violin lines-can there be a violin concerto with more notes?- with easy bravura and great gusto, and his sinewy sound brought clarity to the music.
Meanwhile, there was a remarkable transformation in Lehninger. Whereas in the Birtwistle he seemed concentrated on the mechanics of beating time and providing cues for the complex new score, he visibly relaxed in the Bartok, responding physically to the music with more spontaneous fire and inspiring the players. The teamwork made for a thrilling end to the concert, and the crowd left with sense of being in on the discovery of a new talent.
For Mahler’s Symphony No. 9 two nights later, there was great anticipation for the BSO debut of rising star Andris Nelsons. In Boston this program had been conducted by another BSO assistant conductor, but Nelsons was in town to conduct a run of Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades at the Met (reviewed in this issue). At age 33 the young Latvian conductor is a bit more established in his career than his Brazilian confrere. He is a veteran of Bayreuth and other major European opera houses as well as high-profile orchestras; also, since 2008 he has been the music director of the City of Birmingham Symphony, where he first conducted this Mahler work in early February to good notices.
But a promising reputation and two rehearsals aren’t necessarily enough to light a steady Mahlerian flame under one of American’s oldest musical institutions. The opening Andante began promisingly, a tender sigh of yearning, as Nelsons immediately established himself as a conductor of forward-leaning tempos and long lines rather than detached episodes (a mannerism which seems to afflict many younger conductors). A sense of restraint prevailed initially, but by the time the first violins stated the theme the orchestra was in full cry; it was the first time the Bostonians had sounded too loud for comfort. While it must be tempting to pull out the stops on a major instrument like the BSO, volume sometimes seemed to stand in for energy.
For the Landler Nelsons chose a particularly ponderous tempo, giving the peasant dance a vulgar, bumptious tone. The horn trills sounded like a herd of defiant elephants thumbing their noses. The rambunctious third movement gave every section a chance to let go in turn; this felt like a young man’s Mahler, with emphasis on the defiant and coarse.
Just after 9:20 a general restlessness settled into the hall. A wave of coughing spread across the auditorium, the violin section seemed to lose tonal clarity (but then they never had achieved the tautness I had heard two evenings earlier under Lehninger), and a certain general fatigue crept into the playing. The horns seemed out of control-or does Nelsons, the former trumpet player, simply favor brass?
Clearly there was a lack of rehearsal. Beyond that, it seemed Nelsons simply hadn’t spent enough time with the orchestra to have built a full working relationship. The Boston players are pros at the highest level, but beautiful playing alone doesn’t make for a finished performance. Nelsons knows what he wants, and his physicality and occasional unorthodox gesture are certainly as communicative as Levine’s minimalist movements. But there were also times when it sounded like the players relaxed their energy level in a way which would not have occurred under a conductor who had more firmly established his leadership. The orchestra played the notes, but there were stretches that seemed at loose ends.
Everyone pulled together for the final moments of the last movement, which returned to the opening’s calm stillness, with a sense of suspension. The final measures sounded much like the most peaceful of deaths, a soul loathe to leave but at last quietly ceasing to draw breath. Silence prevailed for several moments before prolonged applause broke out. Mahler is hard to resist and hard to ruin; would that Nelsons had had more time to pull of this last-minute save.