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The Art of Adagio with Haitink

BSO’s ‘La Mer’ Sparkles at Symphony Hall

By Brad Balliett

Boston Symphony Orchestra

Bernard Haitink, conductor

Emanuel Ax, piano

Symphony Hall, Boston

Oct. 9, 10, 11 at 8 p.m.; Oct. 17, 1:30 p.m.

It’s possible that the Boston Symphony Orchestra might have delivered too much of a good thing on Friday night at Symphony Hall. With a first half consisting of almost entirely Adagio pieces, the diehard classical music fans were rapt with amazed attention. The casual listener was fast asleep.

The concert opened with Richard Wagner’s Prelude to Parsifal, a forgotten gem of the German composer’s output that served as the preface to his final opera. The piece is unjustly ignored as a concert piece -- the long, monophonic theme that opens the piece (delicately scored for muted violins and cellos, bassoon, and clarinet) was enough to draw the breath of the average listener, and the sound that conductor Bernard Haitink drew from the strings instantly sucked the audience into the piece’s spell.

Within the orchestra, principal guest conductor Haitink is loved best among a bevy of guest conductors that will continue to fill the seasons’ bill until Music Director Designate James Levine takes over for good.

The concert continued with fragments from Claude Debussy’s incidental music to the play Le Martyre de Saint-Sebastien, a collaboration with an outgoing Italian playwright that was a flop from opening night. The music was written hastily and, self-admittedly, rather sloppily. Debussy realized that he needed to supply a year’s worth of music in two months and enlisted the help of pupil Andre Caplet to finish and orchestrate the pieces.

Thankfully, Debussy saved the best musical hunks of the play for a four-movement suite; Haitink led the first half of this suite on Friday. The delicacy of the winds playing in the first movement was admirable, but the second movement could have used a little more energy, so that the name “Dance of Ecstasy” would have been justified.

As it stood, the “Dance of Ecstasy” gave the first half of the concert a rather needed respite from the onslaught of Adagio movements. The first half closed off with a moving reading of the Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde, the beginning and end to a very important Wagner opera.

The opera is particularly important for its role in the emancipation of chromatic harmony, which is evident from the opening unresolved cello line. This freeing of dissonance was largely responsible for the new school of twelve-tone music inspired in composers like Schoenberg and Stravinsky. The moving tempo in the Liebestod made a particularly nice contrast against the breathlessly slow Prelude. Principal oboist John Ferrillo’s leadership in the opening woodwind chorales was as flawless as his unmatchable legato playing.

(A side note to audience members: even when a piece is played that beautifully, if it ends that softly, it is acceptable to wait longer than 3/8ths of a second before applauding.)

The second half of the program was headed by a piece well-known to Cesar Franck fans but unknown to the rest of the free world -- the Symphonic Variations for piano and orchestra. Piano superstar Emanuel Ax was at the helm, but the dry, academic construction of the music sank the ship before it really got sailing, despite the committed captainship of Haitink and an admirable crew of brass players.

Without a doubt, the highlight of the evening was the expert reading of Debussy’s La Mer, arguably the most important musical work of French Impressionism. The piece served an important role in introducing non-functional harmony to orchestral music, a practice initially decried by both critics and public.

It didn’t take long, however, for La Mer, possibly Debussy’s most popular composition (right behind Clair de Lune), to gain a stable place in the concert repertoire. Haitink used the orchestra’s trust in him to his full advantage in order to draw a sumptuous tone from the strings, especially in the four-part cello chorale in the middle of the first movement. Climaxes were exciting and well timed, and the orchestra’s enthusiasm in the last bars was enough on its own to draw the audience to its feet.