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Boston Symphony Orchestra

Vivaldi and Stravinsky

By Vladimir Zelevinsky

Vivaldi, The Seasons

Stravinsky, Suite from Pulchinella

Conducted by Federico Cortese

Violin solo by James Ehnes

Symphony Hall, April 1st, 1999

There are both advantages and disadvantages when listening to classical music performed live. The minuses are that you’re stuck in a less-than-comfortable chair for the whole duration of the concert; you can’t as much as cough without distracting several hundred people and you risk being distracted by someone else; you have very little choice at deciding on the concert’s program; and, of course, don’t even think of bringing that cup of Earl Grey. The pluses are much less concrete but more important: there’s nothing like the feeling of being a part of a concert, almost an equal participant in creating the musical experience; and if the musicians feel this connection to the audience and parlay it into a more inspired performance, the results can be breathtaking.

The performance was supposed to be conducted by Seiji Ozawa, however due to rescheduling, it was conducted by BSO assistant conductor Federico Cortese. I’m sorry for this change: when conducted by Ozawa, BSO is capable of reaching this higher lever of inspiration. As performed on April 1, the most the orchestra achieved was solid reliability.

This is not to say the evening was without any exquisite pleasures. The major one, present in Vivaldi’s concertos, was the violin solo, performed by a guest soloist James Ehnes. Usually, when one thinks of something as overplayed as “The Seasons”, one thinks of it as an orchestra piece, with the major element being the orchestral texture. This feeling is especially strong when listening to a recording, when it’s frequently hard to tell which violin is handling the melodic line. As performed by BSO, “The Seasons” turned into what they were probably originally intended to be, given the fact that Vivaldi himself was a violinist -- concertos for solo violin with an orchestra.

Ehnes’ solos, every single one of them, were a joy to listen to. “The Seasons” are fast paced in their harmonic rhythms, and the solo violin has some sudden switches from plaintive and gentle melodies, which are present even in the fast movements of concertos in major keys, to rapid ostinato. This succeeded in shining a new light on very familiar works; for example, “Spring” is usually thought of as a bright, rhythmically repetitive piece. In this performance, the soloist managed to unearth some deep longing in the music, which works even better because of its contrast with the normally cheerful accompaniment.

The credit shouldn’t go to Ehnes alone, though: several sequences when the solo violin interacted with the first violin, viola, or cello, made the strengths of individual musicians in the BSO abundantly clear. Most of these moments were interpreted with sublime clarity, and the shape of melodic lines during most of “The Seasons”, especially “Winter”, is excellent.

Still, I wish it were better conducted. Some head-scratching decisions include highlighting the viola in the slow movement of “Spring”. It sounds really awkward, when all the orchestra is playing sotto voce, the solo violin is pouring forth a gentle melody -- and a viola, playing louder than the rest of the orchestra, is playing the ridiculously repetitive figure of two notes, throughout the whole movement. If this melodic line is downplayed as the accompaniment it’s clearly intended to be, it can work; when moved forcefully into the foreground, it’s ludicrously clashing.

In addition, the orchestral tutti are really nothing to write home about: they are neither less nor more than simply competent, with the dynamical range being disappointingly small. I believe the conductor should have taken care to ensure that the orchestra doesn’t sound so uniform all the time.

The second part of the concert somewhat picked the things up, simply because Stravinsky’s “Pulchinella” is more reliant on the independent instrumental parts, rather than on the cohesive sound by the whole orchestra. “Pulchinella” is written as an adaptation of classical music by Pergolesi and his contemporaries, with Stravinsky adding his inimitable touch by making the rhythms less regular and introducing non-chordal pitches using suspensions.

The composition of the orchestra for “Pulchinella” is more or less classical, with the surprising -- and highly effective -- addition of a trombone. Adding the characteristic oomph sound of this brass instrument underneath the relatively customary musical texture proved to be a very effective touch. The Vivo movement, in particular, was utterly hilarious.

Paradoxically enough, it was due to the insufficient control on the part of the conductor that the BSO, taken as a whole, sounded entirely too controlled and reserved throughout the performance. With better guidance, they should be able to perform as inspiredly as a whole as they are capable of when playing solo.