A steadying hand for the BSO


LENOX — The Boston Symphony Orchestra took a trip Sunday to Stockbridge, as if it weren't already there.

After Friday and Saturday programs marked by impressive solo work but erratic conducting, Thomas Ades, the BSO's "artistic partner," brought a steadying hand to the Tanglewood podium. For an opener, he led Ives' "Three Places in New England," the last of which is "The Housatonic at Stockbridge" - the "contented river" in Ives' song to the same melody.

Sometimes it takes a composer to fully understand another composer's music. Taking time off as director of Tanglewood's Festival of Contemporary Music, Ades, the English composer of such works as the opera "The Exterminating Angel," turned New Englander in Ives' nostalgia-spiked scene-setting. As if to seal the outdoors Berkshire mood on a fine summer afternoon, he finished with a brisk, bosky and bracing account of Beethoven's "Pastoral" Symphony.

Between the Ives and the "Pastoral" came Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4, the solo part played with suave mastery by Inon Barnatan in his BSO debut. The slender pianist had the brawn needed for the glittering runs and massive cadenza but, more importantly, he and a reduced BSO gave due emphasis to the relaxed, genial air that gives breadth to the concise work.

Ades' leadership in the accompaniment again showed a composer-conductor's penetrating understanding of an older composer's work. The solo and orchestral parts dovetailed into a seamless, irresistible whole.

So it was also in Beethoven's mood-painting symphony and Ives' mood-painting scenes as Ades fitted Ives' sometimes clashing multiplicity of parts into a whole. More than merely atmospheric, the playing went from tragedy in the evocations of St. Gaudens' Colonel Shaw statue on the Boston Common; to raucous marching of Union troops at Putnam's Camp in Redding, Conn., and finally to fond, hazy recollections of a honeymoon stroll along the Housatonic.

A lovely afternoon for the wedded and unwedded alike.

"I could do that, too," a violinist must think, or something to that effect, as he or she plays a concerto — or maybe just plays in the orchestra — under a conductor. It's called getting the conducting bug. Violinist Leonidas Kavakos was bitten a few years ago and has doubled as soloist-conductor with the BSO in Boston several times since. Between appearances with his chamber music partners, cellist Yo-Yo Ma and pianist Emanuel Ax, Kavakos brought his dual role to Tanglewood for the first time Friday night, going to the summit of violin concertos: Beethoven's.

Kavakos is not a particularly graceful conductor as he swoops and swirls, violin gripped in one hand, but that becomes secondary when you get a Beethoven concerto as imaginatively shaped and shaded as this. In the accompaniment, the BSO responded in kind.

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There were oddities. For the entire program, which concluded with Dvorak's Symphony No.7, Kavakos re-seated the orchestra in classical style, with the violin sections deployed to his left (firsts) and right (seconds) and the cellos and basses moved from right to left. The inner parts gained clarity, enriching the textures.

Even more striking, Kavakos played his own arrangement of Beethoven's alternative version of the first-movement cadenza; he went on to interrupt the transition from the second to third movement with another cadenza, and threw in a brief cadenza within the third movement for good measure. He looked and sounded like a Paganini, lank hair swaying, as he spun out the now-supersized big cadenza to the accompaniment of timpani tapping out the main four-note motif.

Such things were done well into the 20th century, but as event piled upon event, the concerto proper began to seem incidental. Otherwise, it was a thing of shimmering beauty, broad in the first movement, hymn-like in the second and liberating in the finale — in a word, Olympian.

The performance of the Dvorak symphony was supercharged. Kavakos, minus violin or baton, held the orchestra under tight rein with his swoops. The playing never quite combusted, but the BSO did heroic work in expending so much power under so much pressure.

From the land of Gustavo Dudamel Saturday night came debut conductor Rafael Payare, looking a bit like his notable Venezuelan predecessor. Hard-working on the podium, he showed promise during the first half of the concert but put more into Brahms' Symphony No. 1, the evening's finale, than he got out of it.

After a preconcert rain shower sent part of the lawn audience fleeing, the 39-year-old introduced the BSO to Venezuelan composer Inocente Carreno with his 1954 "Margaritena." The 14-minute piece is a Technicolor remembrance of his grandmother Margarita and the folk songs she taught him as a child. The fleeting episodes came across as lushly Latin.

Payare's Brahms First had a lot of push but not a lot of pull. That is, for all the conductor's flailing about, the symphony was driven hard but gained little momentum from the music itself. Phrasing was rudimentary. As in Kavakos' Dvorak, the BSO responded heroically in a difficult quest. It's possible that the newcomer couldn't accommodate himself to the BSO's tight rehearsal schedule in summer.

The evening's reward was Russian pianist Nikolai Lugansky in Rachmaninoff's Concerto No. 1, the work whose hostile reception drove Rachmaninoff into a depression that nearly cost him his career as a pianist and composer. It remains an uneven work but Lugansky balanced technical wizardry and poetry in high degree, bringing Rachmaninoff's characteristically melting lyricism to the dreamy slow movement.                         

The performance was aided by a sensitive accompaniment under Payare and by use of a reduced orchestra. Unlike the full orchestral power that sometimes swamped Yefim Bronfman in the Rachmaninoff Third the weekend before, the smaller forces allowed Lugansky's fluent but expressive passagework to shine through.

The performance was aided by a sensitive accompaniment under Payare and by use of a reduced orchestra. Unlike the full orchestral power that sometimes swamped Yefim Bronfman in the Rachmaninoff Third the weekend before, the smaller forces allowed Lugansky's fluent but expressive passagework to shine through.


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