Nelsons, Boston Symphony close season with a French and Russian bang

April 23, 2016
By David Wright
Kristine Opolais performs with Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony Orchestra Thursday night. Photo: Michael Blanchard

Kristine Opolais performs with Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony Orchestra Thursday night. Photo: Michael Blanchard

The Boston Symphony Orchestra’s season-closing program Thursday night had the look of BSO tradition, old and new.  The repertoire—Dutilleux, Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky, Debussy, Ravel—celebrated the orchestra’s Franco-Russian heritage, dating from the long-ago music directorships of Serge Koussevitzky and Charles Munch.

Representing the new were the featured performers, the Latvian husband-and-wife duo of BSO music director Andris Nelsons and soprano Kristīne Opolais, together on the Symphony Hall stage for the first time since Nelsons’ inaugural concert as music director in September 2014. 

(Coincidentally, or maybe not, the program also reprised BSO performances conducted by Alan Gilbert in January 2013, which, like this concert, began with Dutilleux’s Métaboles, closed with Ravel’s La Valse, and featured Tchaikovsky in between.) 

With Debussy’s La Mer preceding La Valse in the program’s second half, one could imagine a traditional season-closer, sending the audience out on a gauzy wave of nature imagery and lilting waltz tunes, with orchestral fireworks at the end.

It was another sign of the new order that Nelsons bypassed this gala comfort zone in favor of performances that were vigorous, transparent, and even (in the Ravel) sarcastic. 

Dutilleux’s pellucid score was the right appetizer for such a meal.  The 1964 work, composed in five brief movements played continuously, came off as a sort of theme and variations, as mildly dissonant harmonies revolving around the note E moved by turns through piquant winds, velvety brass, and lush strings, and through moods whimsically described in the score as Incantatory, Linear, Obsessional, Torpid, and Flamboyant.

For most of the work, Dutilleux dabbed on the orchestral colors sparingly, sometimes with Stravinsky-like austerity, saving the full ensemble for the last movement.  Nelsons’ clean-scrubbed performance was billed as honoring the 100th birth anniversary of the French composer, several of whose works were introduced by the BSO, and who died in May 2013 at age 97.

The program entered a wholly different sound world in the soft, shifting colors of Rachmaninoff’s miniature song “How fair this place,” a piece that took far longer to applaud onto and off the stage than to perform.  Buoyed by Nelsons’s sensitive accompaniment, soprano Opolais traced the nature scene and the poet’s ecstatic response in a single expressive arc, with just a touch of roughness on the climactic high B. 

When singing opera excerpts in concert, there is always the question of how much to act the role, in the absence of costumes and sets to complete the illusion.  In a staged performance of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, for example, Tatiana’s famous “letter scene” would depict the lovestruck teenager rushing back and forth to her writing desk and doing stage business with pen and paper as passion, shame, doubt, and giddy excitement battle in her mind.

On Thursday, Opolais adopted a stand-and-sing-it approach, trusting Tchaikovsky—who was no mean writer of passionate and conflicted letters himself—to convey Tatiana’s turbulent emotions in the thematic transformations and symphonic richness of his score. 

With the orchestra onstage rather than in a pit, and with Nelsons holding nothing back on the podium, that is pretty much what happened.  It would have been quite superfluous for Opolais also to hurl herself about the stage. Still, one missed something of the heedlessness of youth in her vocally-solid, well-crafted performance.

Debussy abhorred the term “impressionism,” feeling it disrespected the care and attention to detail with which he crafted his music.  Smeary “impressions” of the sea were not for Andris Nelsons either on Thursday night; vivid detail, clarity, suspense, and an almost Classical sense of form were.  Rarely has the music of Debussy sounded so much like Vaughan Williams as it did in the first movement, “From Dawn to Noon on the Sea.”

The “Play of the Waves,” sparkling with a bright glockenspiel, darted in affect from eager to shy and back, and a theme in the strings had the conductor waltzing on the podium.  Clarity was still the order of the day, with even the tiniest flutter of woodwinds coming through to tickle one’s ear.

Debussy perceived that, in orchestral terms, the elemental forces involved in the “Dialogue of the Wind and the Sea” called for bass drum, and plenty of it—not just big bangs, but a marvelous variety of crescendos and decrescendos, all artfully executed on Thursday night.  That was just the foundation for a rich variety of orchestral textures, from the urgent murmurs of the opening bars to the airy main theme for flute and oboe to the fast staccato brass that kicked off the exciting coda.

Nelsons, who is attracting much attention these days as an exponent of Shostakovich, seemed to have found all the irony there is in La Valse and then some, beginning with the opening bars, whose rumble of nascent waltz rhythm took on a distinctly menacing tone.  Even the ripe harp arpeggios that launch the swooping theme for muted strings had an edge to them on Thursday. 

Ravel’s “choreographic poem” can seem quite ingratiating in performance, at least until it runs off the rails in the violent closing pages.  But Nelsons held to a steady pace, minimizing the waltz’s flirtatious hesitations, until one wondered if Joseph Stalin instead of Johann Strauss was calling the tune.

Dark, satirical interpretations of La Valse go back at least to George Balanchine’s macabre 1951 ballet, but one wonders if taking it dark from the opening measures tips the satirist’s hand too soon, removing the element of surprise from the work’s disintegrating climax, as it seemed to do on Thursday.  Instead of a shocking conclusion, there was merely a hectic more-of-the-same. 

In any case, the BSO musicians responded energetically to Nelsons’s interpretation, from rude noises on the tuba to howitzer shots on the bass drum, and the audience had no difficulty sustaining its applause through the dozen or so individual player bows that have become a standard feature of the Nelsons regime.

After that, eyes grew wet and hands grew raw during a BSO end-of-season ritual, in which retiring orchestra members mount the podium for a farewell bow.  Honored Thursday night were violists Robert Barnes (49 years in the BSO) and Kazuko Matsusaka (25 years) and assistant librarian John Perkel (18 years).

By the way, an orchestra librarian isn’t someone who checks out books on composers.  He or she is responsible for conserving, managing, and penciling conductors’ indications in all the printed scores and parts that an orchestra requires to play, and making sure they’re on the right music stands at the right time for all rehearsals and performances, at home and abroad. And you thought your job was demanding.

The program will be repeated 1:30 p.m. Friday and 8 p.m.; 617-266-1200.

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