Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony Orchestra were on scintillating form at the BBC Proms

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Prom 55 – Carlos Simon, Stravinsky, Gershwin, Ravel: Jean‐Yves Thibaudet (piano), Boston Symphony Orchestra / Andris Nelsons (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London 26.8.2023. (JQ)

Yves Thibaudet plays Gershwin at the BBC Proms 2023 © BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Carlos SimonFour Black American Dances (European premiere)
Stravinsky Petrushka (1947 version)
Gershwin – Piano Concerto in F major
Ravel La valse

This is the third time that the partnership of Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony has visited the BBC Proms since Nelsons became the orchestra’s Music Director in 2014. In 2015, for their first joint Proms appearance, I attended the first of their two concerts; that included Mahler’s Sixth Symphony (review).  They were back in  2018; they performed more Mahler in the shape of the Third Symphony (review) and a programme which coupled Bernstein’s Serenade and Shostakovich’s epic Fourth Symphony (review). Their 2023 Proms appearance comes at the start of a 12-concert European tour which will see them perform in eight other cities after London:  Lucerne, Salzburg, Cologne, Berlin, Hamburg, Dortmund, Ljubljana and Paris. All the tour repertoire consists of pieces that Nelsons and the orchestra had performed at Tanglewood earlier in August. At their first Prom, the previous evening, they played Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony (review). I heard the symphony on the radio and the performance indicated that the orchestra is in fine fettle; but, of course, there is no substitute for hearing this or any other orchestra live in the hall. Unsurprisingly, the Royal Albert Hall was packed to the rafters tonight to hear one of the great American orchestras and their charismatic Music Director.

They opened with the European premiere of a piece commissioned by the BSO: Four Black American Dances (2022) by the American composer, Carlos Simon (b 1986). In a programme note, Simon explained that ‘in Black American communities dance is the fabric of social gatherings’. He illustrated this cultural heritage in four short movements entitled ‘Ring Shout’, ‘Waltz’, ‘Tap!’ and ‘Holy Dance’; the piece plays for about 12 minutes.  I enjoyed Simon’s music very much. The writing is consistently interesting and the scoring is colourful and imaginative. All sections of the orchestra get a thorough work-out, but the percussion section (three players plus timpani) and the brass are kept especially busy – and to very good effect. The BSO gave a vibrant, tight performance which went down very well with the audience. So, too, did the music; the composer was present – evidently delighted by what he heard – and he received a warm ovation. I will make a point of listening again on BBC Sounds to this piece, which is both thoughtful and exuberant.

Next, we heard Petrushka. Nelsons opted to play the score in its 1947 version. The original 1911 score is even more extravagantly orchestrated, but the 1947 version still offers a riot of colour. The colouring and vibrancy of Petrushka allied to its strong narrative thread make it a work to which Nelsons is well suited and he was in his element tonight. From my seat I had an excellent side-on view of the conductor and it was fascinating to see him in action as he brought out details and ensured that dynamics were scrupulously – and excitingly – observed. Of course, the BSO is a virtuoso ensemble and has no need of micro-management in order to deliver an excellent performance. But as I watched and listened, I got no sense whatsoever that Nelsons was micro-managing the performance; rather, he was inside the score and relishing the way his players brought out details at his prompting.

The BSO played the score marvellously. Throughout the performance both solo contributions and ensemble work were excellent. Particularly ear-catching were the contributions of Elizabeth Rowe (flute), Thomas Rolfs (trumpet) and Vytas Baksys (piano). Nelsons and his players brought the story of Petrushka, the Ballerina and the evil Moor vividly to life, as they did the hustle and bustle of St Petersburg’s Shrovetide Fair. The last few hushed minutes of music, through which the two muted trumpets cut like knives, was superbly handled and I was delighted that the audience appreciated that Nelsons was holding the moment and delayed applauding so as not to break the atmosphere. This was a tremendous performance of Stravinsky’s masterpiece.

After the interval, Jean‐Yves Thibaudet joined the orchestra for Gershwin’s Piano Concerto (1925). In a programme interview, the pianist mentioned his penchant for wearing interesting concert dress: ‘I always try to wear something beautiful. It’s fun…’ Tonight, he favoured us with a shiny pink/copper jacket which was as natty and colourful as his playing. I don’t think it would be unkind to say that Gershwin’s concerto, which I like very much, is not a ‘great’ concerto in the sense that the established masterpieces of the genre are. However, it is quite subtly constructed – the first movement in particular – and very entertaining; in those respects, it rather reminds me of the piano concertos of Saint-Saëns. Whilst the solo part offers the pianist plenty of challenges and opportunities for display, the orchestral side of the piece is at least as important.

It is probably a truism to say that US orchestras are uniquely qualified to play Gershwin’s concert music and the BSO proved that in spades. Offering playing that was tight, idiomatic and exciting, they brought out the best in Gershwin’s writing. It was something of a revelation to me to see and hear the extent to which Nelsons had ‘bought into’ the Gershwin style. He was consistently ready to ‘bend’ the rhythms in a stylish fashion and his use of rubato was idiomatic. He has long been known as a fine accompanist and here that skill was much in evidence. There are many tricky points in the score where a vigilant conductor is needed to manage the interface between piano and orchestra and Nelsons was spot on. On one occasion it seemed to me that, briefly, orchestra and soloist were in danger of getting slightly out of synch but Nelsons skilfully and unobtrusively ensured that everything was kept in line.

Thibaudet gave a fine account of the solo part. His playing in the first movement was at all times flexible. His pianism was often deft and witty and, like Nelsons, he relished the opportunities to let Gershwin’s ‘big tunes’ sing out. The orchestral introduction to the second movement was wonderfully atmospheric. The key trumpet solo was memorably delivered by Rolfs. American trumpeters have that bright ring to their tone with which Gershwin would have been wholly familiar.  Here, Rolfs blended that brightness with the right amount of bittersweet seasoning to create just the right ambience of soulful nostalgia. Thibaudet’s contribution to this movement was ideal in every respect and I particularly liked the nostalgic finesse with which he played the brief cadenza. The finale had the energy and bounce that a successful performance needs; it also had humour. Thibaudet brought real flair to the music, as did the BSO. This was a terrific account of Gershwin’s concerto.

Andris Nelsons at the BBC Proms 2023 © BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Andris Nelsons and the BSO rounded off the evening with Ravel’s La valse (1919-20). The programme thus had a very neat symmetry: each half had begun with an American work, followed by a score inspired by Diaghilev. However, whereas Petrushka was successfully choreographed for and performed by the Ballets Russes a similar success eluded La valse. As Roger Nichols’s programme note reminded us, Diaghilev had asked Ravel for a new work for his 1920 season. However, when Ravel and a friend played the two-piano version of the score to Diaghilev, the Russia impresario expressed strong approval for the music per se but declared it was not suitable as a ballet. Happily, Ravel was undaunted by this rejection and as a concert work La valse quickly became established as the superb orchestral score that it is. Nelsons judged the mysterious, shadowy opening expertly, after which he and the orchestra gradually brought the waltz to life. Once the dance was established, the conductor showed once again, as he had in the concerto, his ability to use rubato as a fine expressive device; the little hesitations, so essential in this music, were brought off really well and very idiomatically. The performance as a whole was full of vitality and spirit. It was easy to envision the dancers whirling round the floor with increasing abandon until a frenzied climax was reached, after which the waltz was brought to a shuddering halt. This was a marvellous, colourful account of Ravel’s inspired depiction of and homage to the quintessential Viennese dance.

After all the disruptions of the Covid pandemic it is great to welcome Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony Orchestra back to the Proms and to hear them on such scintillating form. For me, it was also great to get a reminder of the charismatic conducting of Nelsons, which I enjoyed on many occasions during his highly successful years with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (2008-2015). For those who can access BBC Sounds, this concert – like every other Prom – can be heard until 30 days after the Last Night.

John Quinn

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