Sibelius, Rachmaninoff, and Ives at the BSO

It’s funny how chance piles things on. For reasons unknown my list of things to check out for March has been top heavy, so suddenly I find myself backlogged once again. But hopefully I’ll catch up soon. And speaking of chance, after having ignored the BSO for years I somehow ended up at two concerts in two weeks. I reviewed the first concert already, and the second concert, featuring Sibelius’s Night Ride and Sunrise, Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, and Ives’ Symphony No. 4 and conducted by Alan Gilbert, soon-to-be head of the New York Philharmonic, was enjoyable although a similarly mixed bag.

First off, the Sibelius. Eichler only gave it a passing mention, in his review for The Globe, and in his review for The Phoenix Schwartz says, “Gilbert didn’t suggest much mystery, and the journey seemed longer than it should have.” I like Sibelius in general, and the strings maintained a tight focus for the surprisingly minimalistic writing of the “Night Ride” segment that I found suitably hypnotic. The “Sunrise” section went on a bit, though, although not through any glaring fault of the performance or interpretation.

The Rachmaninoff was much rockier, however. The orchestra was clearly out of sync at the very beginning, and the entire first section lacked any of the crispness or capriciousness the work calls for. Gilbert’s conducting felt lethargic and was quite a disservice to British pianist Stephen Hough‘s wonderfully nimble performance, although things smoothed out eventually. The rest of the orchestra’s performance in the piece as it wended its way through its various moods (among them, militaristic, diabolical, Arabian) was more controlled, although there were two excruciatingly sloppy trumpet entrances in a row. I can join in with Eichler and Schwartz’s praise for Hough, though, whose playing was elegant but also had character, despite the piece’s relative lack of depth. And like Schwartz I also appreciated Hough’s “playing [of] the composer’s most famous — and most gorgeous — piano theme with unschmaltzy restraint and delicacy and also passion and wit.”

The Ives was clearly the most ambitious work on the programme, so perhaps it’s not surprising that it was the work the orchestra seemed the most prepared for. The work calls for a jumble of extras, including chorus, theremin, organ, piano, and small ensemble offstage (in this case, in the first balcony), and Gilbert was ably aided by assistant conductor Andrew Grams. I enjoy Ives in general as well (perhaps because he makes me feel like a chest-thumping patriot), although his works have a tendency to do the same sort of thing. But Gilbert made the most of all the crunchy “traffic jam” cacophonies, while also bringing out the more lyric moments such as in the third movement. The balance of the massive forces was not always lucid, even given the fact it was Ives, but all in all it was certainly an admirable performance of a rare work.

Oh, and as chance would have it, the night I went happened to have another post-concert reception, the second of the Symphony+ series of events I’ve attended. Unlike last time, the soloist, Hough, made a prompter appearance, although the conductor hadn’t appeared by the time I left (granted, I didn’t stick around for that long). I still don’t personally quite see the point of forcing the performers to mingle, although from a marketing perspective it’s certainly an obvious ploy. Regardless, the attendees seemed to be enjoying Hough’s company, although I feel for the man myself. Hopefully Bostonians gave him less to roll his eyes about than the average audience. 😉 The nibbles were a bit more focused as well, and there definitely seemed to be a better turn out.

If you’re looking for more info on Hough, his official site looks pretty comprehensive. Apparently he’s also been maintaining a blog at The Telegraph’s website, and incidentally included a post about the popular local classical musicians’ haunt Brasserie Jo. (Although I’ve been leery of the place ever since I had a ridiculously watery crêpe there.)

Although this is ostensibly a Boston arts blog, now seems an opportune time to post a few peripherally related links. In terms of classical musicians’ blogs, I’ve had Hilary Hahn’s blog bookmarked for a while now. It doesn’t update all that regularly, but her YouTube channel is more active and an admirable endeavor; a good source of workday time wastage, but you didn’t hear that from me. 😉

The second, and rather more relevant, link is just to highlight Hyperion Records’ Romantic Piano, Violin, and more recently Cello Concerto series. It’s always nice to see lesser-known works being spotlighted instead of the same old, same old, and Hough appears on several volumes, including the Saint-Saëns Complete Works for Piano & Orchestra. The CDs are only available as imports, however. Incidentally (although perhaps not coincidentally), Hough’s newest recital disc was released this month. Amazon’s tracklisting in incomplete, but you can find more details about the disc on Hyperion’s site.

Well, it remains to be seen what my next BSO concert will be. As I mentioned previously, the $20 tix for people under 40 program is continuing through the rest of the current season (and from my survey of the audience at this past concert it seems to be succeeding in drawing a younger demographic). So hopefully I’ll be taking advantage of it at least a couple of times while it lasts.

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