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classical review

Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos and BSO Energize Otherwise Banal Program

By Jacqueline O’Connor

Rachmaninoff and Rimsky-Korsakov

Boston Symphony Orchestra

Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos, conductor

Garrick Ohlsson, piano

Friday, August 19, 2005


Among the rolling hills and placid lakes of western Massachusetts, the Boston Symphony Orchestra makes its summer home at the Tanglewood performing arts center. The 210-acre campus houses a large performance shed, a smaller chamber music hall, homes for the orchestra members and camp goers, as well as spreading lawns where music lovers come almost every night of the week to hear the various musical offerings that run from June to September.

One such concert, on Friday, Aug. 19, was a lovely performance of Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini” and Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade.” Despite the somewhat dull and common-place programming choices, the symphony sounded fantastic under the direction of Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos, a frequent visiting conductor with the BSO. His impeccable style, magnificent musicianship, and passion for the music (evidenced by the fact that he does not use a score while conducting; he has memorized the entire program) seem to draw out the best in each performer on stage and create an amazing ensemble effect. Any concert he conducts is enjoyable and memorable, no matter what is on the program.

The concert began with a brilliantly virtuosic rendition of Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini” for piano and orchestra. In the form of theme and variations, this piece is particularly well-known. Taken from Paganini’s 24th Caprice for solo violin, the deceivingly simple theme leads to many finger twisting passages. Rachmaninoff’s variations are no less difficult and yet were mastered by guest pianist Garrick Ohlsson. Much of the performance, though, was filled with commonplace phrasing and a lack of musical originality. While a certain passion and feeling for the music was absent in his performance, his technical mastery was impressive and enjoyable to hear. In addition, the orchestra interacted well with the soloist, providing the audience with a balanced and enjoyable listening experience.

The second half of the concert featured Rimsky-Korsakov’s classic symphonic suite “Scheherazade,” a piece depicting the life of the fabled story-teller Scheherazade who avoided her death by weaving an intricate web of tales for 1,001 nights. Just as the Sultan Shakhryar was entranced by Scheherazade’s stories, the audience was captivated by the symphony’s wonderful performance of this beloved work. Though this piece is not one I would typically enjoy because of its repetitive nature and sometimes tiring simplicity, de Burgos again created a masterpiece performance. There was feeling and emotion in every phrase and the story-telling aspect of the piece shone throughout the performance.

The soloists stole the show in “Scheherazade.” Solos from the oboe, bassoon, horn, trombone, cello, and most importantly the violin, brought the piece to life. Each solo was played with personality and supreme technical prowess. Malcolm Lowe, the orchestra’s concertmaster, gave a moving performance with prominent solos that featured the main theme of the piece, which represents the voice of Scheherazade. In addition to the quality playing of the soloists, de Burgos and the BSO did a remarkable job in making entire sections sound like soloists so that many voices were heard over the course of the piece.

In the end, I was happy to have heard this concert and was again impressed with the performance of the BSO under the direction of de Burgos. I would urge everyone to make the trek out to Tanglewood at some point during their stay in Massachusetts not only to see the Boston Symphony Orchestra, but to experience the Berkshires and the wonderful community of people who come to the performing arts center. Though the Tanglewood season is almost over, I am excited for the return of the BSO to Symphony Hall starting the first week of October. They are always a delight to hear, and each concert is always a treat to attend.