BSO: Poulenc et al

The Jussen Brothers, Nicole Cabell, Andris Nelsons & Eric Nathan

The opening concert of the Boston Symphony Orchestra was by and large a crowd-pleasing success. Music Director Andris Nelsons chose to feature two pieces by Poulenc, one by Beethoven and a fourth by a local composer which was also a world premiere. The last received a decidedly mixed reception from the audience which reflected its somewhat eclectic nature.

The first piece was Poulenc's Concerto in D Minor for Two Pianos featuring guest soloists Lucas and Arthur Jussen, the duo of pianists, who are brothers from the Netherlands. They have established quite a reputation throughout the music world with their interpretations of this composer's work. Immaculately attired in identical military style dress, the twosome demonstrated with their enthusiastic and detailed precision why they are so well regarded. It was an engrossing demonstration of the critical importance of intense rehearsals that conveyed a true command of the material as well as comfort with it. Poulenc intended the piece to convey cheerfulness with its primary goal of entertaining, which is exactly what familiarity with the music, and with one another, produced.

The second piece on the program was a bit of a curiosity, given that its composer was Beethoven. He wrote the work, Fantasia in C Minor for Piano, Chorus, and Orchestra, Opus 80, in some haste to be performed himself in 1808 at the Theater an der Wien (a popular venue for operettas) in Vienna. By all accounts, it was a rather disastrous event after which the composer never again played the piano in public. This Choral Fantasy was not to be performed by the BSO until a century and a half later, perhaps because of the success of the Ninth Symphony that stylistically features music that both pieces share. Nelsons and his orchestra nonetheless provided insight into what would later be developed into the more familiar themes of the great Hymn to Joy.

The penultimate piece, Eric Nathan's Concerto for Orchestra was performed with the composer and his parents present in Symphony Hall. A short piece of some eighteen minutes, it succeeded in portraying the virtuosity inherent in an instrumental section-based work. On first hearing it was, for both orchestra and audience, a challenging composition, including as it did a lengthy beginning and ending mimicking the cacophony of the sound of automobile horns. One might be tempted to pity the modern composer whose music was sandwiched between that of Poulenc and Beethoven; clearly the concerto will profit from future familiarity, and placement with more appropriate programs.

The last piece was a moving rendition of Poulenc's Gloria, featuring soprano Nicole Cabell and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus. It proved a satisfying end to this program, since it was commissioned by, and first performed by, the BSO, in 1961, then, as now, presented with the Poulenc double piano concerto to great applause.


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