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Gil Shaham, BSO Excel in Berg Concerto

Antonio Pappano Guest Conducts Shostakovich Symphony, Debussy Prelude

By Andrew Wong

Staff Writer

Boston Symphony Orchestra

Antonio Pappano, conductor

Gil Shaham, violin

Symphony Hall

Jan. 24, 8 p.m.

On Saturday, the BSO, led by guest conductor Antonio Pappano, performed an intense program of Debussy’s “Prelude to The Afternoon of a Faun,” Alban Berg’s “Violin Concerto” and Shostakovich’s “Symphony No. 10.” The opening piece by Debussy lit up the room with gorgeous solos by flutist Elizabeth Ostling, the orchestra’s acting principal.

The piece’s need for a smaller orchestra fit well inside Symphony Hall’s rectangular, acoustically superior design. Harp sections, as well as subtleties in string tremelos, blended together flawlessly. Pappano put great effort in not letting any of the musical coloring fade away and also led an exceptionally well-played second theme. Despite that this work is an over-played staple of the orchestra repertoire, the BSO did wonderfully in keeping the piece fresh and enjoyable.

Violin virtuoso Gil Shaham soloed in Berg’s concerto, bringing his usual cheery humble presence to the stage. Shaham won the hearts of the audience with his expressiveness and body language, as well as a superb control of one of the most challenging violin concertos of the twentieth century. A few times the orchestra drowned out the soloist’s intricate passages, but Pappano’s sensitivities to Shaham’s passages helped maintain a definite chamber quality to the piece.

The opening four notes on open strings played by Shaham carried a reserved but assertive tone. As the movement developed, the solo violin opened up, slowly unsheathing a more emotional rendition of Berg’s twelve-tone milestone.

Written for the death of Manon Gropius, the daughter of architect Walter Gropius, the concerto is set in two movements, the first a celebration of the teenager’s life, and the second a violent depiction of death. Shaham burst into the raucous passages of the second movement with great fervor, thrusting his entire body into his instrument.

The subsequent cadenza proved why the Grammy award-winning violinist has had so much international success in the past ten years. Following the entrance of the orchestra, a somber, reflective duet between the violin and bassoon introduced the Bach chorale that Berg placed so carefully in the second movement. The wind section followed with a peaceful restatement of the chorale bringing calm to the atonal storm.

Antonio Pappano, the music director of the Royal Opera House has had great success in operas such as “Tristan und Isolde” and “Siegfried,” but somehow the task of conducting Shostakovich’s most carefully written symphony fell short. For most of the third and fourth movements, a less-than-enthusiastic string section ground out mechanical repetitions of D-S-C-H (Shostakovich’s four-note signature).

The Allegro lacked the fiery urgency required by the opening bars, with the snare overpowering most of the orchestra, and the bass section led a sloppy accompaniment of the syncopated sections. The wind section, as well as a strong percussion lineup, seemed to pick up some of the slack in the fourth movement, however. In the final bars, Pappano managed to create enough energy to finish strongly, despite the weakness of the earlier movements.