They used to be called the “Aristocrat of Orchestras.” And the Boston Symphony often sounded like it. (Of course, they did because the moniker led you to think in that direction.) I miss those old designations, whether they were public-relations ploys or not. They often had a certain elegance: “the inimitable Sir Thomas Beecham.”
In any event, the Boston Symphony Orchestra has come to Carnegie Hall, for two concerts. The first was last night. The second will be tonight: when the orchestra, with singing guests, will perform an opera: Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. On last night’s program were three works, beginning with a contemporary one.
This was Stride, by Tania León, an American composer of Cuban origin born in 1943. Stride was premiered by the New York Philharmonic, under Jaap van Zweden, in the 2019–20 season. I wrote about it at that time—here. By the BSO, the piece was skillfully played, and skillfully conducted.
By whom? I don’t think I have mentioned this. By Andris Nelsons, the music director in Boston. A Latvian, he is a protégé of his late and great countryman Mariss Jansons.
After Ms. León’s piece came a piano concerto—Ravel’s in D major, for the left hand alone. Our soloist was Seong-Jin Cho, the young Korean. He is from Seoul, yes—but he is also a French pianist, in a way. He studied at the Paris Conservatory with Michel Béroff, one of our best players of Ravel, Debussy, et al.
And Cho’s playing of the concerto was very, very French. It was intelligent, beautiful, stylish. Simply exemplary.
Before I proceed, maybe we could have a physical note. As he played, Cho gripped the piano with his right arm. This seemed to provide stability, or a kind of leverage.
With that left hand, he sang, resonantly. When he played triple forte, he did not pound. The notes were rounded, deep into the keys. Never did Cho depart from beauty in this piece. The playing was also sensual, passionate. Cho has the gift of being emotional without emoting, if I may. There were the right hints of jazz. In the final cadenza, the notes shimmered like water.
And allow me a peculiar detail. Toward the end of the concerto, there are some interesting F naturals. Cho accented these in an unusual and effective way. They sounded like panting—almost a physical ache.
If the pianist made beautiful sounds, so did the orchestra. The BSO really sounded like an aristocrat, and a French aristocrat in particular. When the saxophone wailed, he (or she) did so with refinement.
As the audience applauded, Maestro Nelsons had many of the players stand—even before the soloist had returned to the wings for the first time. I had never seen this, in a lifetime of concertgoing. Ever. Seong-Jin Cho just stood there and clapped as player after player rose.
He is not the first foreign pianist to play French music well—even consummately. I grew up listening to Grant Johannesen, of Salt Lake City, Utah (who studied with Casadesus).
Cho granted the audience an encore—a heavenly piece, Liszt’s Consolation No. 3 in D flat. It was a bit stagnant. This piece ought to have a little forward momentum. It needs to breathe. I thought the young master could have done better in this department. But it would have been hard to do better in the Ravel.
After intermission, the Bostonians played a Stravinsky ballet. Which? The Rite of Spring. For this, you don’t need an aristocrat so much as a savage—an elegant savage, if you like.
In his opening notes, the bassoonist stumbled, just a little. Later, a French horn stumbled (as French horns are born to do). Other players stumbled. Some entrances were imprecise. This was not the BSO’s best reading. But the music still packed its punch, by and large. And I like to say: “Life is not a studio recording” (thank goodness).
I do believe, as regular readers may know, that The Rite of Spring really needs to be danced. It is a ballet, requiring the visual. I think the same of another Stravinsky ballet, Petrushka. But how about a third, The Firebird? Ah—that one might as well be a concert piece.
When the Rite was over, Nelsons had everyone and his brother stand, individually. I remarked to a fellow critic, “He is really a thorough and generous acknowledger.” The critic replied, “An exhaustive one.”
Maybe you would like a footnote. During a sudden and lengthy rest in Rite, a child in the audience exclaimed. This made some members of the orchestra smile. And me too.