Conductor Change Yields Unexpected Pleasures in Boston

United StatesUnited States Copland, Tomasi, R. Strauss, Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky: Boston Symphony Orchestra, Giancarlo Guerrero (Guest Conductor), Boston, 21.1.2012 (KH)

Copland: Fanfare for the Common Man
Henri Tomasi: Procession du Vendredi-saint” from Fanfares liturgiques
R. Strauss: Serenade, Op. 7
Tchaikovsky: Serenade for Strings, Op. 48
Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring

It has been impossible not to observe that attendance has been comparatively thin at the last couple of Boston Symphony Orchestra concerts I’ve been to. People, this is absurd! The ensemble is playing splendidly, and the programming is both interesting and attractive.

Riccardo Chailly – who had to cancel – devised a program that was originally to have included Debussy’s ballet Khamma (composed at about the same time as Jeux, but scored by Charles Koechlin). For myself, part of the attraction was the chance to hear this comparative rarity in the Debussy catalogue. Alas, this must await another occasion.

For Plan B, the BSO opted for two parts: first, pieces spotlighting individual sections of the orchestra (playing without a conductor) and second, guest conductor Giancarlo Guerrero leading Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring in Chailly’s stead. The musicians of the BSO shone so in this “makeshift” program that (without meaning maestro Chailly any disrespect or ill) one is almost glad that plans had to change.

As principal horn player James Sommerville indicated in his welcoming remarks at the concert’s outset, the idea of showcasing the several choirs of the orchestra on a subscription concert is one that has been kicked around for some time. And lo, here was an occasion. One might ask then, what is the conductor for? Sommerville coyly jested, “It’s more complicated than that, and I assure you that you will never hear The Rite of Spring played without a conductor.”

The first two works featured the brass and percussion sections, starting with Copland’s famous Fanfare for the Common Man, one of eighteen fanfares written at the invitation of Eugene Goossens while at the helm of the Cincinnati Symphony. The brilliance of tone and precision of intonation made it especially thrilling to hear the brass ring (and the percussion thunder) in Symphony Hall.

“Procession du Vendredi-saint” (“Good Friday Procession”) is one of four instrumental extracts from Henri Tomasi’s Fanfares liturgiques, a concert suite from his opera Don Juan de Mañara. Suitable to its concert title (and, no doubt, its place in the stage work) it begins as a slow, soft march that crescendos; the processional music is tout comme il faut. Inserted is a chorale which recalled the liturgical-music side of Alan Hovhaness. As with the Copland, it showed the brass and percussion choirs to fine advantage. If the Tomasi is perhaps not a great piece, it is certainly concert-worthy. (It also at times required a member of the ensemble to do a little conducting from within. To anyone who plays chamber music – especially rather challenging chamber music – this comes as no surprise.)

Principal flutist Elizabeth Rowe then introduced Richard Strauss’s Serenade for thirteen wind instruments, written when the composer was a precocious youngster. Both assured in technique, and heavily drenched in Mendelssohn, it is charming music.

Lovely as the program had been to this point, the pièce de résistance was the Tchaikovsky Serenade for Strings. To fans of the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, the thought of the Serenade performed conductor-less is no novelty. What was a revelation here in Boston, though, was how the string choir played with such assurance and empathy. With all the string players standing, and so keenly attuned to one another and to the other sections, one felt almost that a conductor would only have gotten in the way. So enthralling was the opening movement, the Pezzo in forma di Sonatina, that the audience broke into applause at the movement’s end. The entire Serenade was nothing short of magical.

A completely different spell was cast by the iconic Stravinsky – no pastoral painting, but a force of nature. In later life, in his second (American) exile from Mother Russia, Stravinsky recalled spring in St. Petersburg, above which the ice breaks on Lake Ladoga as it thaws, the chunks of ice flowing down through the city on the several branches of the Neva: “The Russian winter which seems to last an hour and which is like the whole earth cracking.” The score (including eight horns, two bass clarinets, two contrabassoons and a clowder of noisemakers in the percussion section) is of its very nature exciting. But what I found particularly notable here was Giancarlo Guerrero’s tireless energy as he jigged, trod, hopped – in short, conducted – in a way that did not permit the orchestra to forget that this was music for the dance, and no mere concert-piece. Further, orchestra and conductor gave us not merely a 30-minute thrill (which it undoubtedly is), but a sense of Stravinsky’s expert, exquisitely beautiful scoring.

This was a blast of concert to witness. And part of the joy in the afterglow was the thought that, if this is how well the BSO handle and acquit themselves (i.e., now, in the sort-of-limbo of searching for a new music director), when a new leader is settled upon, the future looks bright indeed.

Karl Henning