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Crowd-Pleasers at Symphony Hall

Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos leads BSO in Beethoven, Stravinsky

By Jeremy Baskin

Boston Symphony Orchestra

Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos, conductor

Symphony Hall

Oct. 3, 5, 8 at 8 p.m., Oct. 4 at 1:30 p.m.

A new face at the helm every week or two, carefree musicians prancing through the standard repertoire: such are the characteristics of an orchestra’s existence in between music directors. This week, the latest face at Symphony Hall was the venerable Spanish maestro Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos, who led the Boston Symphony Orchestra in Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony (Pastoral) and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.

With no room for an overture or -- God forbid -- an unknown, recent composition, perhaps a world premiere, the program began by launching the audience into perhaps the most placid of Beethoven’s symphonic works. How the composer managed to write this serene piece concurrent with his composition of the furious Fifth Symphony is more than a simple testament to his supreme artistry; it is quite a mystery.

The 69-year-old maestro Fruhbeck, conducting without a score for the duration of the evening, imbued right from the start the sense of relaxation in the players. The strings, notably the first violins, adopted the pastoral of tones. A sweet tone alone cannot win the day, as the challenge in this piece lies not simply in establishing the pastoral setting but achieving that feeling without losing the music’s direction, which still must be present here, as in any symphony of the period.

Maestro Fruhbeck’s grandiose gestures led me to realize that Beethoven’s name appears engraved directly above (about four stories above) the podium. The man upstairs was probably smiling contently, as he obviously didn’t have anywhere to be in a hurry. Perhaps, with familiar repertoire performed at comfortable tempos and little emphasis on the internal tension, the theme of this evening could have been “too much of a good thing.”

What tie binds the Pastoral Symphony to the Rite of Spring? One is a musical tableau of tranquility while the other is perhaps one of the most abrasive (and, of course, successful) assaults on tonality. They are separated by about 100 years in time but an eternity in mindset. Yet, they both rely on musical picture-painting to achieve their goals; in the terms of a scholar, both pieces are highly programmatic works.

The reading began timidly enough; perhaps a fifteen-minute intermission was not enough time for the musicians to fully change their disposition from docility to ferocity. The introduction, though appropriately harmonically jarring, was a bit too dynamically unbalanced, with individual instrumentalists aiming for the back of the hall rather than playing off of one another.

The ensuing rhythmically charged “Auguries of Spring,” arguably the most recognizable part of this piece, was given a rather careful reading. This is not a piece for which the first five minutes should be used as a warm-up, but it appears that the BSO players were doing exactly that on Saturday night, when I attended the concert. Alas, this is the type of complacency with which maestro Fruhbeck had to deal.

And deal, he did. The intensity of the music continues to build throughout the first part of this two-part work, and maestro Fruhbeck achieved the daunting task, little by little, of getting the players to turn their laxness into complete carnality. The second part of the ballet, slightly less ferocious, though equally intense, was executed very well (apart from a piccolo miscue), thanks in no small part to excellent timpani playing.

As the audience applauded for maestro Fruhbeck and the musicians, one is left simply to ponder the mysterious process by which good music transforms (while of course not changing at all) from being riot-inciting to being a crowd pleaser. How does such music gain acceptance by audiences, who, by and large, want only to hear the meat and potatoes works of the standard orchestral canon? Should we credit visionary and insistent music directors who continue to program these great works until audiences finally come around, or is the passage of time enough to dull the resistance?

In any case, this week at the BSO, overly standard programming has taken home a box office victory, but at a high artistic cost. With programs like this one, how will the next Rite of Spring be commissioned, performed, and accepted by the public?