Boston Symphony on Tour in San Francisco Blows the Roof Off With Ravel, But Gets Way Too Careful With Mahler and Harbison

United StatesUnited States  Harbison, Ravel, Mahler: Boston Symphony Orchestra, Ludivoc Morlot (conductor), Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco. 7.12.2011 (HS)

Harbison: Symphony No. 4
Ravel: Daphnis et Chloe Suite No. 2
Mahler: Symphony No. 1

Last time I heard the Boston Symphony Orchestra it was limping – an orchestra seemingly without direction, a shell of its former self under the overlong leadership of Seiji Ozawa. Since then, James Levine took the podium in 2004 and lifted the orchestra back to much of its previous glory. The orchestra’s current tour, in fact, was to be something of a victory lap for Levine, but his declining health led to a parting of the ways with Boston last spring. Ludovic Morlot, a rising star and currently music director of the Seattle Symphony, was Levine’s assistant conductor in Boston from 2004 to 2007. He was brought in to lead a series of programs in Boston and take them on tour to California.

The gleaming Boston sound, rich and resonant, was on display on the second night of its visit to San Francisco. Though the level of musicianship was high, a guest conductor is hard-pressed to demonstrate the kind of rapport the regular maestro can develop with his orchestra. Of the three pieces on Wednesday’s program at Davies Hall, only one really took off. The others showed telltale signs of incomplete preparation or less-than-ideal communication.

John Harbison’s 2003 gem, the Symphony No. 4, started things off gamely, and except for some ragged moments the orchestra gave it a resounding reading. At times, especially in a luminous performance of Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloe Suite No. 2, the BSO could sound as magical as any orchestra extant. The spell ran out in the evening’s main event, however, Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 curiously lacking in inflection and precision.

Let’s start with the good news. From the very first measures of Daphnis, with the fluttering clarinets burbling as one, Morlot conducted with both urgency and finesse. And the orchestra responded with playing that swelled and receded as if they were breathing in unison. This was real communication, and the musicians played with uncommon refinement. Principal flute Elizabeth Lowe (who played the Elliott Carter concerto the night before) was the standout soloist, bringing gorgeous tone and incisive playing to the centerpiece flute lines. In ensemble, the big climaxes peaked with thrilling richness and the fast sections missed nothing in accuracy as they flashed past. Born in Lyon, France, Morlot must have this music in his blood. Although he trained at the Royal Academy in London, his sense of balance and perfectly judged tempo made this French music come alive.

The Harbison symphony, which preceded it, got a more cautious reading. It almost seemed as if the orchestra were still feeling its way with it, treading carefully instead of letting it fly off the page. The work is a very personal statement, reflecting the composer’s changing approach after his opera The Great Gatsby got decidedly mixed reviews. In his composer’s program note at the premiere, Harbison wrote that the opening movement reflects the musical style he employed for Gatsby: brash, jazzy, eclectic. The second movement introduces his new thinking, influenced more by Stravinsky’s pungent harmonies and slightly off-kilter melodies and rhythms.

To make this work, the first movement needed a more improvisational feel, and the remaining parts could have used more crispness. But the slow movement, titled “Threnody,” wanted nothing for sustained intensity, sweep and supple phrasing. It was beautiful, emotional playing. Harbison, in attendance, seemed genuinely pleased by the performance and the audience’s warm reaction.

Hearing the Boston Symphony play the Mahler First brings up some specific memories for me. I was 15 years old when my mother took me to hear the Boston Symphony on tour in Los Angeles in 1962 under Erich Leinsdorf in a program that included the Mahler Symphony No. 1. I had never heard it before. Actually I hadn’t heard any Mahler, and you can imagine the impact on a teenage boy from all those fanfares happening cheek-by-jowl with schmaltzy waltzes, familiar (to me) Klezmer music and huge orchestral climaxes. So there was for me a certain resonance anticipating the BSO on tour playing this music several decades later, even as many performances by a long line of great conductors echoed in my brain cells.

Well, it wasn’t bad. The brass played the fanfares jauntily, the strings made rich sounds and the big climaxes rang out with authority. But a lot was missing. The opening nature music needed more mystery. The strings could have handled the first appearance of a Wayfarer song more gently. The fanfares could have used more urgency. Glissandos should have been filthier, the German dance in the second movement rougher, the Klezmer music in the third movement funkier. Inflections needed more bite in the brass. In short, this performance was way too nice, something no Mahler symphony should ever be.

Quick tempos were part of the problem. Morlot’s rapid pace in the first movement kept the music from breathing. The second movement dance needed more space to stomp, and the funeral march in the third movement felt more like the Allegretto in Beethoven’s Seventh than an actual funeral cortège. On the other hand, Morlot and the orchestra knew exactly how to put the cap on a big climax, and they finished the first movement and finale with the sort of precision that was missing through the rest. And of course, that got the big ovation.

Harvey Steiman