Friday, February 22, 2013

Verdi, Respighi, and Brahms with the ASO

A few notes from Thursday night’s ASO opener of a 3-concert series at Symphony Hall, provided as encouragement to attend one of the remaining performances, Friday or Saturday at 8 p.m. Based on Thursday’s attendance, you may be able to get rush tickets, so this is one program where you can probably safely attend on impulse without breaking the bank.
Two guest artists are featured on a varied program. Young Brazilian conductor Alexandra Arrieche led the ever-popular overture to Verdi’s La Forza del Destino. She presented an assured and attractive demeanor, and although some of her choices, such as distinct pauses between the various sections of the overture (rather than maintaining the “inexorable forward motion”, as Ken Meltzer aptly describes it in his program notes), may reflect her current level of experience, they were conscious decisions, and not driven by any lack of technique. There is room to grow, as there should be, and it will be interesting to see how she develops over the next several years. Plus, it’s always encouraging to have the distaff side of the conductorial house represented on the podium. If memory serves, Ms. Arrieche is only the 4th female conductor in the twelve years I have regularly attended ASO concerts (Marin Alsop – Ms. Arrieche’s mentor; Laura Jackson; and Mei-Ann Chen have been the others).
Pianist, conductor, and composer Olli Mustonen played the seldom-heard Concerto in modo misolidio of Ottorino Respighi. Mr. Mustonen has appeared previously with the ASO, and when I heard him before I found his mannerisms distracting – there is much extraneous movement and enormous expenditure of energy relative to the result produced. But at least the mannerisms are not affectation, as with some “superstar” pianists on the circuit – they are ingrained from his earliest years at a piano. Mr. Mustonen is unquestionably earnest and absolutely committed in his approach to music-making; but his is a highly idiosyncratic style. Without access to the score, I don’t know if the predominance of percussive, staccato playing is the composer’s instruction or the soloist’s prerogative; it certainly seemed there were sections that could have benefitted from the same sfumato technique associated with Italian painting – a little more smoke and fewer sharp edges.
A possibly unintentional lesson in physics was also provided, illustrating that the relationship between applied force and dynamic level is only linear up to a point. Past that point, in the key-hammer-string system, no matter how hard you hit the keys, you only get so much sound. Even a sledgehammer won’t help. I don’t recall ever seeing the lid wobble so much and the ½” steel crossbars of the piano dolly actually flexing due to the force transmitted through the keyboard (the dolly is designed to provide similar rigidity to what the piano would have if it were set directly on the stage).
My initial impression is this concerto is a “connoisseur’s” work – there is a lot here to examine from a theoretical and musicological standpoint; however, for an audience that may come expecting a piano version of Pines of Rome, it presents a challenge. There are some measures near the end of the first movement that call to mind Pines, but it is a fleeting impression. While I empathize with the intellectual curiosity that drives one to excavate and explore non-standard repertoire, it can be difficult for an audience hearing the work on a one-time basis. Considerable effort is required from both the soloist and orchestra to bring out the strong points of the piece. Most concert pianists opt to invest that effort in the big guns – Beethoven, Brahms, Prokofiev, etc. – so Mr. Mustonen and the ASO merit thanks for giving us the opportunity to hear and judge this work for ourselves.
An absence of ensemble in such matters as matching articulation and style – for instance where the program notes indicate “playful dialogue” between soloist and orchestra is supposed to occur – would point to a slightly immature product if Mr. Mustonen hadn’t already recorded this work with a Finnish orchestra. Instead, it pointed for better or worse to the soloist’s individual choices, and was in distinct contrast to the musical collaboration enjoyed by the audience of approximately 150 who attended the free chamber music concert prior to the main event. Here Respighi's rarely performed Il Tramonto for mezzo-soprano and string quartet was given an accomplished reading by ASOCC alto Kate Murray and a quartet of ASO players, with great sensitivity to text as well as to blending  the textures of voice and strings. With the audience seated for the most part in the orchestra’s chairs on-stage, the balance between singer and strings could easily be maintained, and an intimate environment was created within the yellow cavern of Symphony Hall. A second set of string players took the stage for the first movement of one of Beethoven’s “Razumovsky” Quartets (Op. 59/No. 3), providing in total nearly 45 minutes of excellently-performed, accessible music.  The ASO intends to continue this series, and it’s a great idea for taking down the “wall” between the players on-stage and the audience who usually sits anonymously in the dark. The chamber performances are open to anyone having a ticket to the concert; however, they are typically done only on the first evening of the concert series. 
Under the constraint of having a long work day Friday, I left at half-time, missing the “tried and true” part of the program, which would be Brahms’ Symphony No. 2. This is familiar and comfortable territory for both orchestra and conductor: it is a safe bet that you will very much enjoy the ASO’s performance if you attend Friday or Saturday evening. The orchestra will be warmed up; the piano, beaten into submission, will be no threat over at stage left; and you can simply sit back and luxuriate in this magnificent work.
For ASOC and CC members, there is an added surprise for you within the February Encore concert program, and to find out what it is, you need to go obtain one either by attending this week’s concert, or by coming to the Bach B Minor Mass next week. So, GO! To the ASO.

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