BSO's Harbison, Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev: Triple Play

The BSO at Symphony Hall
(photo: Boston Symphony Orchestra)

The first Friday afternoon performance of the current Boston Symphony Orchestra season, coincidentally also the winding-down of the baseball season, presented a true triple play. Conducted by Ken-David Masur, BSO Associate Conductor, featuring as piano soloist Garrick Ohlsson, the orchestra performed John Harbison's Remembering Gatsby (Foxtrot for Orchestra), Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No.1, and excerpts from Prokofiev's ballet music for Romeo and Juliet. The highlight of the program was indisputably the rarely-performed Rachmaninoff piece (due in large part to its demands on a pianist), which made for a strange juxtaposition of the piano concerto bookended by dance compositions, neither of which had as much impact as the central one. It might have been more effective to have placed the piano concerto at the end of the program and allowed the music to build rather than to be a bit of a letdown after the Rachmaninoff display of virtuosity on the part of Garrick Ohlsson, the piano soloist already well known to BSO audiences.

The curtain raiser, a piece by the American composer John Harbison, was quite appropriate in recognition of his eightieth birthday this year. Barely eight minutes in length, it was to be expanded upon by Harbison in later years into an opera. An MIT professor originally from Orange, New Jersey, he received a commission to develop the work into a full-length opera for the Metropolitan Opera. Reflecting the jazz age of F. Scott Fitzgerald, it was given a performance (also in its expanded form) by the BSO at Tanglewood in 2013. Though brief, this “foxtrot” with its jaunty pace and frequent sudden dissonance was a crowd-pleaser that left one wanting to hear more. It was an enjoyable homage to Harbison's long association with the BSO, part of several pieces by the composer to be offered this season.

Rachmaninoff's first concerto for piano and orchestra, the composer's first piece ever written, (thus also his Opus No.1) when he was eighteen, and performed in 1892 by the composer himself as the piano soloist, was not a success at first. It may have been too uninhibited for some with its vivacious style and grand climax. After some revisions which he undertook as a more mature composer, the piece eventually achieved more acceptance, but it would never approach the popularity of his later works. Ohlsson was certainly up to the challenge of the work, which in lesser hands can be deemed too tempting to over-dramatize and show off. His playing instead demonstrated his familiarity with the often-overlooked nuances and subtleties of the composer's output, having completed, with this piece, all of the Rachmaninoff piano concerti with the BSO. The sole issue with this pianist is that he manages to make it seem all too easy to meet and even exceed one's expectations.

After the intermission, the orchestra performed ten excerpts from Prokofiev's ballet Romeo and Juliet, about the star-crossed teenage lovers, beginning with the second suite the composer wrote, about the Montague and Capulet clans. Composed in 1935, this is a lengthy piece when presented in its entirety, here excerpted into segments of the basic Shakespearean tragedy, though not in chronological or dramatic order, which made for some jarring placement. The awakening of the street and the young girl segments, were followed by the suites for masks and minuet, the famous central balcony scene, then the segment featuring Friar Lawrence, the death of Tybalt, and the final portrait of Romeo at Juliet's tomb, reminiscent of the final scene in Verdi's opera Aida. It made for a somewhat anticlimactic presentation, though the audience seemed appreciative, especially with the music familiar to Boston Pops audiences.
The orchestra was assured and confident under Masur's baton, and, as noted above, Ohlsson was extraordinarily fine. There may have been a moment or two of tonality issues in the brass section, but overall this was a home run for the orchestra.

Encore performance of the entire program to be performed on Sat. Oct.20th & Tues. Oct.23rd.

No comments:

Post a Comment