Thomas cello concerto debuts in blaze of glory with Harrell and Boston Symphony

March 16, 2013
By David Wright

Lynn Harrell, Augusta Read Thomas, and Christoph Eschenbach acknowledge the applause after the world premiere of Thomas’s Cello Concerto No. 3 with the BSO. Photo: Stu Rosner

While winter clamped down outside Symphony Hall Thursday night, hopes of rebirth blazed inside as the Boston Symphony Orchestra premiered a fiery new cello concerto by Augusta Read Thomas.

Normally, when speaking of fire and a concerto, one imagines a soloist performing feats of derring-do while the orchestra hovers supportively in the background. In Thomas’s Cello Concerto No. 3, “Legend of the Phoenix,” however, it was the orchestra led by Christoph Eschenbach that supplied most of the pyrotechnics, with soloist Lynn Harrell in the role of the bard whose words summoned them forth.

Thomas told interviewers that, working with a commission from the BSO to perform with Harrell, she let the particular strengths of these players inspire the music. If so, she must especially admire the orchestra’s percussion section, for her score kept four players busy lighting up the air with triangles, crotales, finger cymbals, glockenspiel, and other high-pitched instruments.

Piccolo and stratospheric violins added their piercing notes to the general glare. If there were such a thing as sunglasses for ears, they might have come in handy Thursday night.

Thomas’s skillful scoring allowed cellist Harrell to rise above it all, both literally (seated on a foot-high platform) and sonically. While he too played far up the fingerboard at times, his part fell mostly in the human-voice range that is natural to his instrument. Speech rhythms—choppy, thoughtful, urgent, voluble—predominated over long cantabile lines.

And while the cellist certainly had to get around his instrument a bit, the piece’s virtuoso gymnastics came mostly from the orchestra, which Eschenbach molded into a formidable force that rendered the concerto’s spectacular outbursts and dreamy interludes as if the many players were one. At times it seemed one was listening to a Concerto for Orchestra and Cello instead of the other way around.

Harrell took to the role of narrator most eloquently, however, playing with unflagging focus and vitality at the center of the storm.

The concerto was a continuous piece lasting about 30 minutes, with four identifiable sections that brought some variety of tempo and mood—but not much. The music kept its shimmering colors and optimistic outlook throughout, and yet offered so much to keep the ear engaged that, when Harrell, playing alone at the end, finally put the period on this long sentence, one was surprised that a half hour had passed.

Although Thomas has said that the image of the phoenix—the mythical bird who died by fire and was reborn from its ashes—suggested itself as a title only after the music was composed, there is nevertheless some pointedly avian music in between the pyrotechnics, not just the usual chirps and twitters, but some charmingly bony, beaky dancing for the soloist with harp, wood blocks and tom-toms.

And speaking of tom-toms, it is a small step from evoking fire in high percussion and brass to the fierce rhythms of big-band jazz at its hottest—a step that Thomas most gratifyingly took in this score.

The Thomas world premiere, itself an event of the first order, was set in an overly ambitious program that began with Mozart’s Symphony No. 41, “Jupiter,” and closed with Saint-Saëns’ Symphony No. 3, “Organ”—the one monumental for its intellectual grandeur, the other for its sheer sonic aspirations.

Eschenbach’s solution to this too-many-chiefs problem was, apparently, to play the Mozart like an eighteenth-century trifle, a Dresden figurine, all curves and soft attacks, so that it would function as a curtain-raiser to more serious items later. If that was the intention, why not just program Eine kleine Nachtmusik instead of draining the splendor out of the “Jupiter”?

After some (understandably) casual playing in the first two movements, the orchestra mustered some swing in the symphony’s bold minuet, and accurately executed the finale’s intricate fugue—although by this time the dazzling stretti, inversions and the rest came off more as a too-clever student’s counterpoint exercise than as the culmination of a great composer’s grand design.

By contrast, after the intermission Eschenbach and the orchestra gave a taut and powerful performance of the Saint-Saëns symphony, a piece with much to offer besides the organ-and-orchestra spectacle at the end.

The organ is merely a member of the orchestra in this work (albeit a loud one sometimes); the tradition, observed on Thursday, of featuring the organist with a program listing, bows and all that is like giving solo billing to the cannon-shooter at the end of the 1812 Overture. For the record, however, Olivier Latry blended his part expertly with the orchestral texture, and executed his fortissimo with gusto when the time came.

Eschenbach led the symphony’s first movement with a fine oceanic sweep, not neglecting the nervous wavelets in the opening theme for violins; in fact, the performance’s drive and nervous energy somewhat overwhelmed the gentler second theme, a small complaint amid a seascape of splendidly Berliozian brass and keening woodwinds.

Stigmatized as a Wagner skeptic in his day, Saint-Saëns composed some distinctly Wagnerian “endless melody” for the slow section of this movement, which Eschenbach and the orchestra sustained with hushed concentration Thursday night.

The second of the symphony’s two movements began, Beethoven-fashion, with a scherzo that parodied the first movement’s main theme, and proceeded from there to further variations on that theme, all of them vividly characterized by Eschenbach and his agile players.

As in Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, the scherzo proceeded into the finale without a break. And also as in the Fifth, the finale delivers its big wallop (in this case, organ and orchestra unleashed together, fortissimo) right at the top, then asks the listener to sit through an only moderately exciting movement to get to the grand coda.

If Eschenbach and the orchestra didn’t entirely solve this finale problem, it wasn’t for lack of brilliant and energetic playing all around. And as the audience stood and cheered after the symphony’s spectacular finish, it was at least a relief to know that a concert that had begun so unpromisingly had risen from the ashes.

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Saturday.; 617-266-1200.

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